Her retirement checks are not high to begin with—$813 a month, and Ava McNamee will be affected by the slower rise in benefits. She is 64, and worked in the movie industry as a scenic artist, which paid her about $1,300 a week. But those jobs dried up with the recession, and a job as an assistant to a fashion designer didn’t last long. “I had no choice,” she said. “I had to take my Social Security at 62. I was jobless.”

In 2011, people under their full retirement age accounted for about 70 percent of new claims for retirement benefits, even though taking benefits early reduces their payments by some 25 percent from the amount they’d get if they were able to wait for full benefits at age 66.

So now McNamee, an art teacher by trade, earns $100 a month teaching ceramics classes at the center. She had almost nothing in savings, and a roommate helps pay the rent in a rent-stabilized building. McNamee says she is “pretty healthy” except for scoliosis, an abnormal curving of the spine. Medicaid takes care of her medical bills.

We chatted about what the chained CPI might do to her benefits 20 years from now, though she didn’t know much about the change in the COLA formula. “No one knows about this,” she told me. “Do you really think the politicians are going to advertise this? I guess they want all the old people on the street begging.” As for her own situation, McNamee said, “I hope I am dead by that time. I can’t afford to be alive.”

Gerald Busby

He spent most of his career composing music and musical scores for the film industry. At age 77, Gerald Busby still writes music, but Social Security retirement benefits are his main source of income. He gets $730 a month plus a small disability payment of $72 from SSI—Supplemental Security Income —for blind, disabled, and aged with very low incomes. Busby qualifies because, he says, he is HIV positive. There’s Beltway talk about exempting SSI payments from the chained CPI, but it’s far from clear how lawmakers will resolve that issue.

Like so many Americans, Busby also claimed benefits at age 62. His partner had died and he declared bankruptcy because he “needed every penny.”

A good chunk of his check goes for rent in the Chelsea Hotel, for a rent-stabilized studio apartment. He also gets help from the city and from a foundation (a foundation “for geezers,” he said) to cover the rent. The rest of the check covers credit card bills, computer and music supplies, and lingering bills from his partner’s illness years ago. “I’m still paying off old debts,” he said. “About $30 to $50 a month.” He is on Medicare and has a Medicare Advantage plan that takes care of most of his health expenses. “The true bill for my HIV medications is about $45,000 a year, but I pay less than $100.”

Busby didn’t know about the Great Debate over the chained CPI, but he doubted that COLA increases would help much, particularly if they are diminished by a new calculation formula. “It’s really pretty negligible unless you’re pretty frugal,” he said. In the end, he said, he believes there is little people like him can do to make their voices heard, “unless I became a full-time activist. I spend all my time writing music.”

And so the chained CPI comes down to a battle between outfits like the AARP, the AFL-CIO, and MoveOn.org on one side, speaking for people like Carleton, McNamee, and Busby, with some politicians and the Fix the Debt crowd on the other, speaking for those who worry about the deficit. I

Tuesday The Huffington Post ran a piece that brought an ordinary person’s voice into the reportorial mix. It would be good to hear from more people like that, people who will be affected by the battle’s outcome, as the debate is joined.

Follow our coverage of the coverage of politics and policy on Twitter @CJRSwingStates.

And follow the author @Trudy_Lieberman.

Related stories:

Can people afford to lose their Social Security COLA?

The making of a meme

The media discover the chained CPI

Meet the Debt Fixers

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.


Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.