Chained CPI survey? Think again, Washington

Remember just last year – an election year – when political leaders in Washington and on the campaign trail told us they would not cut Social Security benefits for people currently in the program? Now President Obama is pushing a budget deal that includes a proposal called “chained CPI,” a fancy Washington term that really means cutting Social Security and veterans’ benefits, and increasing taxes for most taxpayers. The chained CPI would cut the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security and veterans’ benefits by $146 billion in the first 10 years alone, while also raising taxes by $124 billion.

Fortunately, people in New York do remember, and 86 percent of us who are 50 and older believe it is very important not to reduce Social Security benefits for current seniors. This rejection of chained CPI is not limited to one party. Ninety percent of Democrats, 86 percent of Republicans and 86 percent of independents in New York oppose it.

And here’s a little news those in Washington might want to pay attention to: Nearly 70 percent of us in New York who are 50 and older will be less favorable to our member of Congress if he or she votes for chained CPI.

Chained CPI represents a shattered promise – at a high cost – to seniors, to people with disabilities and to veterans. That cost would grow higher year by year, making it increasingly harder to pay for groceries or heat or medicine.

For the average 65-plus retiree, the cumulative benefit cut would be more than $5,000 by age 80 and more than $14,000 by age 90. With people living longer, it is easy to see how harmful this proposal is.

Older veterans would be hurt twice by chained CPI because it would cut both Social Security and veterans’ benefits. A 62-year-old veteran would lose $32,000 in total benefits by age 90. Is that really the way we want to treat the men and women who have sacrificed so much for all of us?

Chained CPI would take a heavy toll on people with disabilities. Today, 40 percent of people with disabilities are kept out of poverty by Social Security.

Women, who on average live longer than men, would have to absorb a disproportionate share of this cut. Among Social Security recipients 85 and older – a group that would pay a heavy price for chained CPI – 68 percent are women.

Proponents of chained CPI portray it as a more accurate indicator of the cost of living. It is based on the notion that when the cost of an item goes up, you simply switch to a cheaper alternative. It is time for the supporters of this idea to get acquainted with the real lives of people receiving Social Security.

A typical senior has an annual income of only $20,000 a year and spends much of his or her money on necessities like prescription drugs and health care that do not have lower-cost substitutes. For someone 85 and older, out-of-pocket health care spending is two-and-a-half times what it is for a person under 65.

Chained CPI is not only harmful and illogical; it is also out of place in the discussion of deficit reduction. As a self-financed program providing earned benefits, Social Security has not caused the deficit – and it should not be turned into an ATM for politicians trying to address it. We deserve a separate national conversation about how to protect Social Security for today’s seniors and responsibly strengthen it for our children and grandchildren.

For anyone who needs further evidence of the Grand Canyon between elected officials in Washington, D.C., and the rest of us, this proposal ought to be Exhibit A. It is not enough for the president and members of Congress to profess their support for seniors and their undying gratitude to veterans. Let’s send an unmistakable message to President Obama and the politicians, of both parties, counting on us to have short memories of what they promised on Social Security and veterans’ benefits and a shallow understanding of what is at stake: Think again.

Marilyn Pinksy is volunteer state president of AARP New York, based in New York City.