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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Social Security: Cost-of-Living Adjustments

Gary Sidor
Information Research Specialist

To compensate for the effects of inflation, Social Security recipients usually receive an annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). Benefits will be increased by 1.5% in 2014, after an increase of 1.7% in 2013.

Social Security COLAs are based on changes in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), updated monthly by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The COLA equals the growth, if any, in the index from the highest third calendar quarter average CPI-W recorded (most often, from the previous year) to the average CPI-W for the third calendar quarter of the current year. The COLA becomes effective in December of the current year and is payable in January of the following year. (Social Security payments always reflect the benefits due for the preceding month.)

If there is no percentage increase in the CPI-W between the measuring periods, no COLA is payable. No COLA was payable in January 2010 because the average CPI-W for the third quarter of 2009 did not increase from the average CPI-W for the third quarter of 2008, and again in 2011 because the average CPI-W for the third quarter of 2010 remained below the average CPI-W for the third quarter of 2008. When the average CPI-W for the third quarter of 2011 exceeded that for 2008, establishing a new benchmark, a COLA was payable in 2012. Since the average CPI-W for the third quarters of 2012 and 2013 exceeded the average CPI-W for the third quarters of each respective preceding year, 2014 will be the third consecutive year in which a COLA will be paid.

Because a COLA of 1.5% will be paid to Social Security beneficiaries in 2014, identical percentage increases in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and railroad retirement “tier 1” benefits will be paid, and other changes in the Social Security program will be triggered. Although COLAs under the federal Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) and the federal military retirement program are not triggered directly by the Social Security COLA, these programs use the same measuring period and formula for computing their COLAs. As a result, their recipients similarly will receive a 1.5% COLA in January 2014.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the trustees for the Social Security trust funds both project annual COLAs beyond 2014.

Date of Report: November 6, 2013
Number of Pages: 9
Order Number: 94-803
Price: $19.95

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