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Early data suggests no Social Security cost-of-living adjustment for 2020

Key Points
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics has released Consumer Price Index data for the last quarter of 2018.
  • If those numbers were used to calculate a Social Security cost-of-living adjustment today, there would be little to no increase in benefits in 2020.
  • There are still nine more months to go before the cost-of-living adjustment is officially calculated, and the numbers could go higher or lower, according to The Senior Citizens League, which tracks the adjustments.

Early estimates for next year's Social Security cost-of-living adjustment are in — and they're nothing to celebrate.

In fact, at the rate we're going, there might not be a cost-of-living adjustment for 2020 at all, according to Mary Johnson, Social Security and Medicare policy analyst at The Senior Citizens League.

The non-profit organization tracks how the cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, changes could shape up each year and has a strong track record for accuracy. Last September, Johnson predicted the COLA for 2019 would be 2.8 percent. The next month, the Social Security Administration confirmed that number.

A Social Security Administration office in San Francisco.
Getty Images

That 2.8 percent bump marked the biggest increase for cost-of-living adjustments that beneficiaries have seen since 2012. Every year, the Social Security Administration adjusts the amount of the benefits it pays out in order to keep up with inflation.

There have been years where retirees have seen no increase at all, including 2010, 2011 and 2016.

The data the Bureau of Labor Statistics is tracking now suggests the COLA for 2020 could drop dramatically, and even match those years where there was no increase, according to Johnson.

Social Security COLA 190117 Konish EC

2019,2.8%
2018,2.0%
2017,0.3%
2016,0.0%
2015,1.7%
2014,1.5%
2013,1.7%
2012,3.6%
2011,0.0%
2010,0.0%
2009,5.8%
2008,2.3%

Data for last three months of 2018 shows that the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers, or CPI-W, which is what the Social Security Administration uses to calculate the COLA, has dropped by 1.8 percent compared to the last three months of 2017.

The Senior Citizens League's estimate for COLA in 2020 using the CPI-W, meanwhile, is currently at 0.1 percent using the December data.

That's a dramatic drop from October's numbers, which pegged the COLA for next year at 2.5 percent, and the November data, which brought it to 1.5 percent, according to Johnson's calculations.

The current calculation is only an estimate, and could change in the next nine months.

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Each year's COLA is calculated using third quarter data from the BLS. Results from those three months — July, August and September — is averaged and then compared to the average for the same period for the previous year.

"We could go even lower, or it could come back up," Johnson said. "What catches my attention is how much we have lost for it to be so close to zero. We have sort of started back to where we were at the beginning of 2018, as far as the rate of inflation goes. We've really almost lost a whole year's worth."

The decline can be attributed to two factors: lower energy prices and slower food price growth, according to Johnson.

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