How Well Are Social Security Recipients Protected from Inflation?

Gopi Shah Goda, John Shoven, Sita Nataraj

NBER Retirement Research Center Paper No. NB 09-14
Issued in September 2009

Social Security is widely believed to protect its recipients from inflation because benefits are indexed to the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W). However, the CPI-W may not accurately reflect the experience of retirees for two reasons. First, retirees generally have higher medical expenses than workers, and medical costs, in recent years, have tended to rise faster than the prices of other goods. Second, even if medical costs did not rise faster than the prices of other goods, as retirees aged, their medical spending would still tend to increase as a share of income; that is, each cohort of retirees would still see a decline in the real income left over for non-medical spending. We show that Social Security benefits net of average out-of-pocket medical expenses have declined relative to a price index for nonmedical goods by almost 20 percent for men, and almost 27 percent for women, in the 1918 birth cohort. We also explore the extent to which indexing Social Security benefits to the CPI-E, an experimental measure of inflation for the elderly, would change these results.

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Acknowledgments