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Social Security recipients get biggest cost of living boost in decades. What to know

The Social Security Administration said Wednesday that Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits will increase by 5.9% for millions of recipients in 2022.
Social Security card - AP
Social Security recipients will get the biggest cost of living boost, 5.9%, in decades in 2022, the Social Security Administration announced Wednesday. (Jenny Kane | AP Photo)

Millions of Social Security recipients will get the biggest ​cost-of-living boost to their benefits in decades.

The Social Security Administration announced Wednesday that Social Security and Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, benefits will get a 5.9% cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, in 2022 — the largest increase since 1982. The announcement comes amid soaring inflation as the economy struggles to recover from the pandemic.

Here’s what to know about the increase.

Who will get the increase?

Roughly 70 million Americans will see their Social Security or SSI benefits increase by 5.9%, according to the SSA.

The boost will translate to an average monthly increase of $93 for retired workers, $47 for the spouse of a retired worker, $87 for an “aged” widow or widower, $46 for a widow or widower who is disabled, and $75 for a worker who is disabled, according to estimates from the SSA.

The “monthly maximum ​federal” SSI amounts in 2022 will be “$841 for an eligible individual, $1,261 for an eligible individual with an eligible spouse, and $421 for an essential person,” the SSA said.

“Social Security and SSI beneficiaries are normally notified by mail starting in early December about their new benefit amount,” the SSA said Wednesday. “Most people who receive Social Security payments will be able to view their COLA notice online through their personal my Social Security account. People may create or access their my Social Security account online at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount.”

When will the increase start?

The boosted payments will begin on Dec. 30 for roughly 8 million SSI beneficiaries, and the adjustment to benefits payable to more than 64 million Social Security recipients will start in January 2022, the SSA said.

How was the increase decided?

People who receive retirement or disability benefits get a cost-of-living boost each year to keep up with inflation.

Since 1975, the SSA has increased Social Security’s “general benefit” based on increases in cost of living as measured by the Consumer Price Index, which is “a measure of the average change over time in the prices paid by urban consumers for a market basket of consumer goods and services.”

The SSA “starts with” the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical workers, or CPI-W, which measures the monthly change in the price of a basket of goods and services like food, health care and energy, according to the AARP.

“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 AARP said. “The percentage change is the COLA for the following year.”

Why the increase matters

The increase comes during a surge in inflation. The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers, or CPI-U, increased 0.4% in September after increasing 0.3% in August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Over the last year, inflation rose 5.4% before the seasonal adjustment.

Charles Blahous, a retirement policy expert ​and former public trustee who helped oversee Social Security and Medicare finances, told the AP that “regardless of the size of the COLA, you never want to minimize the importance of the COLA.”

“What people are able to purchase is very profoundly affected by the number that comes out,” Blahous said. “We are talking the necessities of living in many cases.”

Some experts had predicted the 2022 COLA could be the highest in decades, including the Senior Citizens League, which in August predicted a 6.2% increase. David Certner, legislative counsel and director of legislative policy for government affairs at AARP, said in a​ blog post that the COLA will “no doubt be higher than it has been for the last decade” because of rising prices.

Previous COLAs

The 2022 COLA is the highest since 1982, when it was 7.4%.

Since then it has only surpassed 5% twice — in 1991 when it was 5.4% and in 2009 when it was 5.8%.

For most of the past decade, the COLA has remained around or below 2%, including in 2021 when it was 1.3% and 2020 when it was 1.6%, according to the SSA.

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