In October, the Social Security Administration announced its annual COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment) for Social Security beneficiaries. Based on an inflation index that understates the impact of higher prices on seniors, it was determined that Social Security benefits will increase by 1.7 percent next year.
To be sure, that is better than nothing, but, with rising food and energy prices, as well as higher health care premiums and co-pays, for too many, it is not enough. And, given that in two of the last three years, seniors had to do without a COLA, while their costs continued to increase, it is clear that a legislative fix is in order.
That is why I have cosponsored legislation to change the way the COLA is calculated, pegging the annual cost-of-living adjustment to a new "Consumer Price Index for Elderly Consumers" that better reflects the costs most likely to be incurred by seniors, such as health care and prescription drug expenditures.
I well understand that many seniors, especially those on fixed incomes, are struggling to make ends meet. One in four West Virginians -- including retirees and widows -- collect Social Security benefits, receiving an average $13,000 in annual payments. That is less than $1,100 per month. It is a small figure compared to the massive bonuses you hear about on Wall Street, but it helps to keep working families out of poverty, and it is vital to ensuring our seniors live and retire in dignity after a lifetime of labor.
I am adamant in protecting and strengthening Social Security and ensuring a decent benefit for West Virginia seniors and workers. In these daunting fiscal times, however, there are some Members in Congress who are just as fanatical about slashing spending, without regard to its effects on working, middle-class families and seniors.
In the coming weeks, as the Congress considers legislation to address our Nation's budget deficits and the so-called fiscal cliff, a number of proposals will be put forward to reduce the COLA, or possibly even to make more radical changes to the Social Security program.
While long-term reforms are necessary to ensure the solvency of the Social Security program, such reforms should not be used to pay for spending and tax cuts outside of the Social Security program. To ensure that does not happen, the Congress should consider entitlement reforms separate from overall deficit reduction legislation.
The American people deserve and need to understand what is being proposed in regard to their retirement insurance program, and that means avoiding a scenario where the White House and Congressional leadership dump a multi-trillion budget agreement in the lap of a lame-duck Congress, almost sight unseen.
According to the latest Trustees report, the Social Security trust funds can pay 100 percent of the benefits that are owed through 2033, so, clearly, reforms do not have to be enacted in the next few weeks. There is time to study and debate the legislative remedies and make sure it gets done right.
I am and have been an ardent proponent of Social Security. I believe strongly that seniors deserve the benefits they are owed after a lifetime of paying into Social Security and that those obligations must be honored. And that includes providing the funds necessary to administer the program and ensure that beneficiaries have access to the services they have earned. As well, it means providing an annual COLA that is fair and keeps up with the pace of inflation for our seniors.
Social Security has served our workers and retirees well for 77 years. Our seniors should not have to give up the benefits they have worked a lifetime to accrue, in order to fix a budget shortfall they did not cause.