The 69 million Americans who collect Social Security are on track to get the biggest cost-of-living hike since 1983, with one advocacy group for senior citizens projecting a 6.1% increase to benefits due to surging inflation.

The bad news: Recipients will have to wait for that bump because the Social Security Administration adjusts its payments only once a year, starting with December benefits that are paid in January. That means seniors and other Social Security beneficiaries wouldn’t receive a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) until January 2022. 

In the meantime, prices for everything from gas to groceries are rising at a time when Social Security recipients got what was among the meagerest of COLA adjustments in recent years — a 1.3% increase for 2021. As the pandemic eases, a rapid reopening of the economy is fueling pent-up spending for goods and services that in many cases remain in short supply, prompting inflation to jump 5.4% in June compared with a year earlier.

Based on June’s inflation numbers, Social Security recipients next year will see the biggest COLA increase since 1983, when a 7.4% bump went into effect, according to a new forecast from the Senior Citizens League, a nonpartisan group that focuses on issues relating to older people.

One meal a day

Some seniors are struggling with higher inflation, which is eating into the buying power of their benefit checks, said Mary Johnson, Social Security and Medicare policy analyst at the Senior Citizens League. One retiree wrote to her group to say they had to cut back to eating one meal a day because of higher costs for medical care and other expenses, she noted. 

The Social Security Administration will announce its annual COLA adjustment in October, which is based on the average rate of inflation over the prior three months. To be sure, inflation could recede during the summer and early fall, potentially resulting in a lower COLA rate for 2022 than the Senior Citizens League is forecasting. 

Economists predict that inflation could slow later this year, but that depends partly on supply bottlenecks easing, according to Oxford Economics.

“The big concern is that current high inflation gets built into consumers’ and businesses’ expectations, leading to higher long-run inflation, as happened in the 1970s,” Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group, said in a research note. 

But that “eye-popping” inflation might not last given that only a handful of products account for the bulk of higher prices, such as used cars and gasoline. And prices were weak a year earlier when much of the U.S. economy was still shuttered due to the pandemic, which may lead to an overstatement of inflation, Faucher added.

Even so, Social Security payments had lost buying power even before this year’s higher inflation, according to a report from the Senior Citizens League. Government retirement benefits have lost about one-third of their buying power since 2000, the group found. That’s due partly to health care expenses such as Medicare premiums rising much faster than inflation.

There are some efforts to overhaul how COLAs are calculated. Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat from California, introduced a bill this month that proposes the Social Security Administration consider a different measure of inflation that better reflects seniors’ real expenses. 

Under the bill, the SSA would be required to use the so-called Consumer Price Index for the Elderly, which rose at an average annual rate of 3.1% from 1982 to 2011, compared with the 2.9% increase for the index that’s currently used.