‘Where’s the COLA?’

Legislation would mandate minimum 3-percent social security COLA, Whitehouse says

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U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse stopped by the Johnston Senior Center on Wednesday morning to discuss legislation he’s submitted to guarantee a 3-percent cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, for Social Security recipients.

Mayor Joseph Polisena joined Whitehouse for the event, where the senator briefed a few dozen seniors while taking questions over the course of about 20 minutes. Whitehouse explained that he believes the 3-percent floor is necessary because inflation rates often don’t take into account what seniors purchase on a day-to-day basis.

While the price of electronics continues to trend down, Whitehouse said the figures on groceries and other necessities climb upward. He said the aim is to change the means by which the cost of various consumer items is tabulated.

“Part of the problem has been they set the inflation rate by looking at a market basket full of things people buy, and a lot of the stuff they have in there is electronics – calculators, flatscreen TVs, laptops, iPads, iPhones, all that stuff,” Whitehouse said. “Well, we know how much the price of them has gone down, but when I go around and talk to seniors, they’re not buying lots of that stuff. They’re buying food, medicine, gas, rent, electricity, and those things are going up, not down.”

The timing of Whitehouse’s press conference was no accident. He noted that “it’s kind of birthday season,” and he was celebrating the occasion for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the two health care programs into law in July 1965, while President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially signed the Social Security Act in August 1935.

“It’s one of the things that I hear the most when I go to Rhode Island seniors – ‘Where’s the COLA?’” Whitehouse said. “There have been years where the COLA has been zero. There have been years where the COLA’s been 1 percent, 1-point-something percent, and then guess what? Where does it all go? Medicare, exactly. It disappears into Medicare as soon as we do that.”

Whitehouse also addressed attempts during the Bush administration to privatize Medicare, a third rail that he said has not been revisited much recently. He said there have been recent efforts to “knock down” Social Security disability, but said there is no plan in place for that either.

“So they learned, if you go and you put your hand on a really hot stove, you’re a little bit cautious about going back and putting your hand on that same hot stove again,” he said. “So they’re not doing that right now.”

Whitehouse said he believes Social Security is in “pretty good shape,” but expressed concerns that Republicans would find a way to propose cuts as members of the baby boomer generation continue to collect.

He said his “obvious” solution would be to eliminate the cap on salary that causes a contribution to Social Security.

“It’s up around $200,000 now, but there are people in this country that make $200 million,” Whitehouse said. “So they don’t pay any more to Social Security than a regular person. It’s actually less as a percentage of their earnings. And if you structure your earnings so that they’re not coming through salary, through payroll, than you’ve got a whole different trick that you pulled on the system.”

Polisena, 65, offered his endorsement of the legislation during his brief speaking portion, even joking that he’s “not too far away” from Social Security.

“[Whitehouse is] a hard worker and I think he can get it done. He’s the guy that can get it done if anybody can get it done,” the mayor said. “Everything else goes up. The cost of medication goes up. The cost of electricity goes up. For those of you that drive, the gas goes up. Everything but your Social Security. Goes up a little bit, but not enough, so we’d like to see that somewhat higher.”

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