En español | Every year, by law, Social Security recipients are eligible for a cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA). The increase in benefits is designed to help beneficiaries keep up with rising prices. Retired workers receive the annual COLA from the Social Security Administration (SSA), as do survivors, those getting Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) and recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. Yet, while these beneficiaries are, indeed, eligible for COLA increases annually, the amount of the increase can vary greatly from year to year — and there's no guarantee of an increase in any given year.
How the Social Security COLA is calculated
SSA starts with the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), an official measure of the monthly price change in a basket of goods and services, such as food, energy and medical care. The CPI-W is tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). SSA then calculates the COLA by comparing the average of the CPI-W for July, August and September of the previous year with the average for the same three-month period in the current year. The percentage change is the COLA for the following year.
For example, in 2019, the third-quarter average CPI-W was 1.6 percent higher than it was in the third quarter of 2018. Thus, the COLA increase for 2020 was 1.6 percent. As a result, the average monthly benefit for all retired workers rose by 1.6 percent to $1,503, from $1,479. The average monthly benefit for all disabled workers rose to $1,258, from $1,238. The COLA amount is typically announced by SSA in October.
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High inflation of 1970s led to annual COLAs
Until 1975, it took a new act of Congress each time Social Security benefits were increased. In the 1970s, however, soaring inflation was quickly eroding the purchasing power of fixed pensions and benefits. The annual rate of inflation doubled to more than 12 percent between 1969 and 1974. Congress enacted the COLA provision as part of the 1972 Social Security Amendments and automatic annual COLAs began in 1975. The first automatic Social Security COLA was 8 percent in 1975.
The 1975 COLA wasn't the largest bump in Social Security history since automatic annual increases went into effect. That came in 1980, when benefits rose 14.3 percent; an 11.2 percent increase followed in 1981. The 21st century has seen modest COLA increases, ranging from 5.8 percent in 2008 to zero for 2010, 2011 and 2016. There's no COLA increase if prices remain flat (or fall) year over year.
The Board of Trustees for the Social Security Trust Funds estimated that the 2021 COLA would be 2.6 percent. However, that projection was made before the sharp economic downturn caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.