CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Less than one year ago, politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington promised no cuts to Social Security for those who receive it or are close to receiving it. Period.
Last month, President Obama introduced a budget deal that proposes a "Chained CPI" in making cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security. Chained CPI is a twist on the Consumer Price Index, a formula that looks at how the prices of items we need change over time. Chained CPI measures living costs differently, because it assumes that when prices for one thing go up, people sometimes settle for cheaper substitutes.
The adoption of Chained CPI will cut the yearly cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security, now indexed to inflation, by $146 billion in the first 10 years alone, while also raising taxes by $124 billion.
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.
Women would be especially hard hit by the Chained CPI because they typically live longer, rely more on income from Social Security, and are more likely to be poor than men. Women earn less on average than men, are more likely to work part time, and are more likely to have gaps in their employment. All these factors result in lower average annual benefits for women.
Single women age 65 and older receive a median Social Security benefit of just $13,000 a year -- roughly $4,000 less than men. By the time a single female would reach age 80, the Chained CPI would reduce their benefits by $56 per month, or nearly $700 per year. Given how little their Social Security benefit is now, who could afford that?
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 also take a heavy toll on people with disabilities. Today, 40 percent of people with disabilities are kept out of poverty by Social Security.
The president's proposal 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.
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.
It is not enough for the president and members of Congress to profess their support for seniors and their undying gratitude to veterans. An unmistakable message must be sent to President Obama and the Washington 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.
Miller is director of AARP in West Virginia.