September 2011, Dean Baker and David Rosnick

During the negotiations over raising the debt ceiling, President Obama proposed cutting the annual cost of living adjustment for Social Security by switching to an index that would show a lower measured rate of inflation. This alternative index, the chained consumer price index (CCPI-U), shows an annual rate of inflation that averages approximately 0.3 percentage points less than the consumer price index (CPI-W) that is currently used to index benefits. While this change would lead to $122 billion in savings to the government over the next decade, it also means that beneficiaries would receive lower benefits.

Since the vast majority of retirees rely on Social Security for the bulk of their retirement income, this cut in the cost of living adjustment would imply a substantial reduction in the standard of living of retirees, unless they offset it by saving more during their working years or retiring later in life. While we cannot know for sure how workers in future years will adjust their behavior, this paper assesses their past response to changes in the cost of living adjustment. It finds that they were not able to raise their non-Social Security income in response to cuts in Social Security benefits.

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