WASHINGTON — The news that 70 million people will see an 8.7% boost in their Social Security checks next year came just weeks before Election Day, but it is unlikely to give Democrats the edge they are desperately seeking at the polls.
In fact, the promise of bigger payments could call even more attention to the surging prices that have been inflicting pain on households — and the reason behind Thursday's announcement of the the program's largest cost-of-living increase in four decades.
"It's going to bring more money to people's pockets, but it primes people to think about high inflation," said Marty Cohen, a James Madison University political science professor.
"This is being done because inflation is bad, and that's the reason for the large adjustment. It's not an issue that Democrats want on the front burner for voters."
Voters have ranked the economy as a higher priority than Social Security, with 71% of U.S. adults telling Pew Research Center in January that strengthening the economy was a top priority for the president and Congress versus 57% saying the same about ensuring the Social Security system is financially sound.
The 8.7% boost in benefits brought a one-word response from 76-year-old retiree and genealogy hobbyist Paul Phelps: "Ouch."
In Phelps' mind, the increase is so large because inflation is so bad.
Rising costs will not have any bearing on how he votes in the Nov. 8 election. Neither will the boost he will see in his monthly checks beginning next year.
"No, it's a good example of the government running as the government should," said Phelps, of Alexandria, Virginia.
Mary Browning, a 69-year-old Social Security recipient in Minneapolis, said she credits Democrats and the Biden administration entirely for the revved up checks she will get starting in January. But that did not change how the self-described "die-hard progressive" she plans to vote.
"I don't think that people understand how difficult it is to get these changes through. And Biden is getting them through," Browning said.
Yet Biden and his administration played no role in the calculation of the cost-of-living adjustment. It is arrived at by a formula based on inflation.
The White House messaging on Social Security highlights how older people will save hundreds of dollars next year thanks to the 8.7% Social Security increase, a roughly $5 monthly decrease in Medicare premiums and a new law -- which Republicans unanimously opposed -- that that will cut some prescription drug prices for Medicare recipients.
"Seniors are gonna get ahead of inflation next year," President Joe Biden said Thursday. "For the first time in 10 years, their Social Security checks will go up while their Medicare premiums go down."
A new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows that only 36% of people in the United States approve of Biden's handling of the economy. But they are not putting all the blame for inflation on him, with 55% saying higher than usual prices are mostly because of factors outside Biden's control and 44% saying that's happening mostly because of Biden's policies.
Republicans have been quick to point out other ways costs are up for older people, highlighting private retirement plan losses over the last year, high gas prices and rising costs at the grocery store.
"Seniors are having to delay their retirement, retirees on fixed incomes are struggling, retirement funds are plummeting and Biden and Democrats have only themselves to blame," said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Emma Vaughn.
Some Democratic candidates have put Social Security at the center of campaign ads attacking their opponents. In some cases, the ads have made misleading suggestions about Republican plans for Social Security, echoing recent claims from Biden that Social Security will be "on the chopping block" under a Republican-controlled Senate.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., proposed plan earlier this year that would require Congress to come up with a proposal to adequately fund Social Security and Medicare or consider phasing them out.
That idea has won little public support from Republican lawmakers. It will "not be part of our agenda," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
To Jaime Harrison, the Democratic National Committee chair, Republicans "want to cut Social Security and they're openly plotting to raise prescription drug prices on millions of seniors."
Nowhere has Social Security become more of a campaign issue than the Senate race in Wisconsin, where Democrat Mandela Barnes, the lieutenant governor, is challenging Republican incumbent Ron Johnson.
Johnson, one of a few politicians who expressed support for Scott's plan, has repeatedly criticized Social Security over the years, calling it a "Ponzi scheme." He has proposed moving Social Security from mandatory spending into the discretionary fund, which would mean the money spent on the program would not be automatic and require Congress to approve the funds every year.
During their debate Thursday, Johnson defended his comments on Social Security.
"I never said I wanted to cut or put Social Security on the chopping block," Johnson said.
Barnes pushed back.
"He's coming for your retirement," he said.
It is unlikely that with such meager support to overhaul Social Security that anything will be done in the coming years, said Cohen, the James Madison political scientist. The program is also extremely popular, with 74% of U.S. adults saying in 2019 that the program's benefits should not be reduced in any way.
"Saying is one thing, and getting things done is another," Cohen said. "It's a program that's broadly popular, for the reason that it benefits people. It's somewhat untouchable."
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