CBO Testimony: How Chained CPI Will Reduce Social Security Payments

April 24th, 2013
in econ_news, syndication

Econintersect:  Jeffrey Kling, Associate Director for Economic Analysis at the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) testified before a congressional subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee last week.  He reviewed in detail the alternative methods of calculation Consumer Price Indexes and the shortcomings of these processes.  Not the least of the problems is that the composite for a society will necessarily not be representative for most of the individuals within the society.


Follow up:

In three days, GEI Analysis will publish a discussion by Steven Hansen covering the issues addressed by Jeffrey Kling.  Hansen will provide an analysis of some specific data regarding the economic factors affecting U.S. seniors.

First, here is a definition of chained CPI, compared to the CPI-W metric used now, from the Washington Post:

Using chained CPI instead of CPI-W means the rate at which those benefits tick up would be slower, because the former reflects substitutions consumers would make in response to rising prices of certain items. Therein lies the “chained” part of the name. The metric utilizes a basket of goods and services that are measured changes from month to month; much like a daisy chain.  If the cost of a certain form of transportation goes up, for example, people might switch to another kind. This kind of “substitution” is part of what is factored into chained CPI.

A summary of some of the overall budgetary impacts of using chained CPI has been published in an article by Emily Stern in Employee Benefit Advisor.  Here is a list constructed from excerpts from that article:

  • ...switching to the chained CPI-U on a government-wide basis starting in calendar year 2014 would reduce the deficit by a total of $340 billion over the next 10 years.
  • Such a change would decrease federal spending on mandatory programs (direct spending) by $216 billion and increase federal revenues by $124 billion over the fiscal year 2014–2023 period.
  • A little more than half of the reduction in spending would be for Social Security.
  • Social security benefits would decline over time from the current COLA method to an average of $30 per year less in 2013.
  • ...would reduce net Medicare spending per beneficiary by an average of roughly $3 per month in 2023.
  • ...roughly half a million beneficiaries would see their premiums for Parts B and D of Medicare increase by up to $125 per month because they would become subject to higher premiums on the basis of their income.
  • Medicare spending would be reduced by an average of about $300 a month for approximately 100,000 beneficiaries who currently qualify for low-income subsidies.

The summary from the testimony:

Cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for Social Security benefits and other parameters of many federal programs and the tax code are currently indexed to increases in the traditional CPI, a measure of overall inflation calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). According to many analysts, however, the CPI overstates increases in the cost of living because it does not fully account for the fact that consumers generally adjust their spending patterns as some prices change relative to other prices and because of a statistical bias related to the limited amount of price data that BLS can collect. One option for lawmakers would be to link federal benefit programs and tax provisions to another measure of inflation—the chained CPI—that is designed to account fully for changes in spending patterns and that does not have the same statistical bias.

The chained CPI grows more slowly than the traditional CPI does: an average of about 0.25 percentage points more slowly per year over the past decade. As a result, using that measure to index benefit programs would reduce federal spending for Social Security, federal employees’ pensions, Medicare, Medicaid, and various other programs. For example, if such a proposal took effect next year, Social Security benefits would be roughly $30 a month lower, on average, by 2023 than they would be under current law, representing a reduction of about 2 percent of average benefits. (Depending on when they started receiving benefits, some people would see a greater percentage reduction and others a smaller one.)

In addition, indexing tax provisions with the chained CPI would increase revenues.  If all uses of the traditional CPI in mandatory programs and the tax code were switched to the chained CPI starting in calendar year 2014, mandatory spending would be reduced by a total of $216 billion between fiscal years 2014 and 2023, and federal revenues would be increased by $124 billion.

(The President’s budget for fiscal year 2014 includes a related but less comprehensive option that would use the chained CPI for Social Security and some other spending programs as well as for the tax system.  CBO is currently reviewing that and other proposals in the President’s budget.)

Although many analysts consider the chained CPI to be a more accurate measure of the cost of living than the traditional CPI, using it for indexing could have disadvantages.

The values of the chained CPI are revised over a period of several years, so affected programs and the tax code would have to be indexed to a preliminary estimate of the chained CPI that is subject to estimation error. Also, the chained CPI may understate growth in the cost of living for some groups. For instance, some evidence indicates that the cost of living grows at a faster rate for the elderly than for younger people, in part because changes in health care prices play a disproportionate role in older people’s cost of living.

However, determining the impact of rising health care prices on the cost of someone’s standard of living is problematic because it is difficult to measure the prices that individuals actually pay and to accurately account for changes in the quality of health care.


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