Monday, August 30, 2010

The Real Cost Of Living as a Retiree

As a federal retiree, I was both surprised and disappointed that there would be no 2010 cost of living (COLA) increase for federal annuitants or Social Security recipients. The “promise” of the annual COLA has long been a central feature of both of these retirement systems and provided an important hedge against the never-ending escalation in prices, taxes and the necessities of life. With the decision to not provide this protection for retirees in 2010 came the message that the COLA was never “promised” or permanent. We learned that the determination as to whether or not we would receive these increases is based on the annual findings from the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Now I don’t know about other retirees, but when I sat down with my human resources representative to talk retirement, she never told me COLA’s were a “maybe.” However, at this point, my real issue is with the CPI and its utility in determining cost of living increases for retirees.

The CPI uses prices collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) from urban and clerical populations that make up 87% of the U. S. The BLS surveys price information on the cost of food and beverages, housing, education and communication, medical care (but apparently not medical insurance premium cost), and recreation. The BLS process for information collection includes a monthly call by BLS staff to representatives from these areas that are located in doctor’s offices, retail stores various service establishments.

What I find most troubling is the fact that no one called me, or as far as I can tell, anyone like me. Real people are struggling with the rising cost of living and the zero raise in 2010 (and the planned zero raise for 2011) is hitting us hard. As our states, counties and cities try to survive in this negative economy, the citizens are being called upon more and more to support the infrastructure we all use and require. While I am not opposed to paying my fair share, my ability to contribute will be severely hampered by the lack of recognition of my “real” cost increases. Our federal government needs to acknowledge that my and others costs for living are not a function of the nebulous pie in the sky CPI. I am a federal retiree living with a PRI: Personal Reality Index. And to bring the point home; between 2009 and 2010 my PRI included:

v Homeowner’s Insurance: up 11%

v Auto Registration: up 48%

v Property Taxes: up 8%

v Gas and Electric: up 19%

v Health Insurance Premiums: up 18%

And yet the CPI indicates that my PRI does not have any value in determining a COLA.

The CPI alone is no longer a valid tool for determining what it costs to live in this country. Calling the retail stores and doctors offices will no longer suffice. Some combination of the CPI method and a survey of “real” cost factors should be created to assure a more accurate determination of COLAS.

The zero raise for federal and social security retirees in 2010 was a boneheaded move. To even contemplate a zero raise in 2011 when my PRI and that of many other retirees will surely increase even more is unconscionable.

And word to the wise: there are millions of us, we are organized, and we vote.

Sheryl J. Bize- Boutte

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