Have you noticed that it's bill increase season? It is for me – the time of year when notices of an uptick in price arrive from the companies that provide products and services one cannot cancel or do without.
My auto insurance goes up 3.25 percent in November. If I stay with the Medicare Part D provider I have now, the premium will increase by 17.2 percent in January. The Medicare Supplemental premium goes up by just over 5 percent in November.
And one of those top two companies Americans love to hate the most has just increased my internet access fee by 6.6 percent – that would be without any additional speed (which is abysmal) or other services. It's just an arbitrary increase - they do it every year.
These percentage figures don't include the annual property tax bill that will arrive in a week or two. For the past year, the local news has overflowed with reports about how much housing prices have increased in the Portland area, so that assessment is liable to be a shocker this time.
3.25 percent and 6.6 percent don't sound like much but foreshadowing the point of today's post, 6.6 percent here, 3.25 percent there, another 17.2 percent – each of them every year – and pretty soon you're talking about real money.
The system is rigged, my friends, rigged to, over time, impoverish elders along with anyone else on a fixed income. It's the income that is fixed, but everything else is flexible – always upward.
Hang on to your hats: for those of us who rely largely on Social Security, it is all but official that there will be no cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for 2016. The announcement will be made in a few days.
The COLA is determined each year by comparing the CPI-W (Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners) in the third quarter of the current year to the prior year's third quarter and this year (2015), it is below the 2014 inflation number.
(There is ample evidence that the CPI-W does not reflect elders' spending as compared to wage earners' spending and if inflation for elders were calculated more fairly, there would be a COLA increase because the kinds of items we spend more money on go up in price more each year than workers' average expenses. But that's an argument for another day.)
As I often note, I am not unique. If it is happening to me, it is happening to thousands, millions of other people and here is how it has been with me: even in past years where there has been a cost-of-living adjustment, I have lost financial ground. Every year since I became a Social Security recipient in 2006, the total increase in my expenses (however small each individual one is, sometimes) is greater than the COLA.
Since it has been that way now for ten years, I can't help but ask in what year the outgo line in my budget will overtake the income line. Especially since I have no way to increase other income. Where can I get a Walmart greeter application.
All right – that last sentence is an exaggeration (for now) but one still must ask how it is that in a year in which, according to the people who do that kind of bean counting, the price of so many items increases enough to cut into what little I have left after paying the monthly bills?
I don't think TGB readers have a right to know details of my finances, but here are some examples of what has changed since 2006:
Social Security benefit increased by 21.5%
Supplemental Medicare premium has increased by 70%
Condo HOA has increased 17.5%
Part D premium increases next year by 17.2%
I can look for a lower Part D premium when the tables are published later this month at medicare.gov. Although the percentage is high, the increase is only two or three dollars but for me, it is the principle.
You will recall that early this year, I cut way back on cable television. In fact, I would have ditched it entirely except that (absurdly) it is cheaper to subscribe to internet AND the lowest-level, basic TV service than internet alone. That cut my monthly expenses by about 10 percent.
Plus, to indulge in a little black humor, the upside to global warming where I live is that it doesn't cost as much to heat the house in winter these days so that bill is down a little lately.
My point in this list of one person's expenses is that all elders except those lucky enough to have a reasonably good pension (that has not been taken away), in addition to Social Security, go through this same fiscal dance each year: where and what can I cut down?
How many elders live so close to the bone that they live in fear of – oh, say an old appliance finally dying (have you seen the prices on stoves and refrigerators lately?) or a big veterinarian bill or major dental work?
And in what year do the annual increases in premiums, utilities, food, homeowner's dues, household repairs, etc. cut so far into stagnant income, that there is no more room to dance?
In case you hadn't noticed, we are in an election year for president, all representatives and one-third of the Senate. Every year congressional Republicans try to cut Social Security and this year will be no different, including whichever Republican finally grabs the Republican nomination.
The Republican party has a long-term goal of eliminating Social Security by whatever means - privatization, reduction of COLA, cutting the benefit, raising eligibility age, etc. They have been trying to do so for decades and so far they have been beaten back by the Democrats in Congress.
Which is why it is crucial to keep at least as many Democrats in Congress as we have now.
Presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders [I-Vt], has spent years pursuing a change in the CPI to better reflect elders' expenses in Social Security COLA increases. This year, he and others are pushing for a straight increase in the Social Security benefit. (He also knows all the smart ways to raise Social Security revenue that is needed.)
But even on the off-chance Sanders is elected president, his only power to change any of this is the bully pulpit.
Because of Republican gerrymandering, it is probably impossible to elect a Democrat in Republican districts. But we can work to make sure that Democrats hang on to the seats the have and, possibly, increase them in the Senate.
Even if you're not all that interested in politics, please pay attention to whom you are voting for next year. I don't know about you but I can't afford to have the Social Security benefit we all paid for over many years chipped away at anymore than it has been.
ADDITIONAL WONKY (BUT IMPORTANT) NOTE: Without a COLA, the Medicare Part B premium, currently at $104.90 (which is required to be deducted from the Social Security benefit), will not change for most of us.
But for certain individuals and couples in higher income brackets and for new Medicare enrollees in 2016, there will be higher Part B premiums. Substantially higher.
It's complicated and explaining it is not the point of today's post but if you think you fall into one of these categories, you can read a good explanation of what to expect here.
The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) has sent a letter to Congress urging them to block this massive premium increase. You can read it here [pdf].