Seniors and their advocates yesterday vowed an all-out battle against efforts by some key Democrats to trim Social Security cost-of-living adjustments as part of a deficit-reduction deal, warning that such a plan could overwhelm retirees who struggle to make ends meet.
The proposal would mean smaller increases for retirees and disabled people - about $130 less per year for the typical 65-year-old, according to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which cited official estimates from the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration. Because lower increases would compound over time, the annual benefit cut would be almost $1,400 by the time a senior reaches 95, the committee said.
“It’s devastating,’’ said Shirley McCready, 76, a retiree from Springfield who cleaned restaurants for a living. “I only have one income - that’s Social Security. If they start chipping away, what am I going to do? It’s just one income, and it’s low income, and they’re going after us.’’
The proposal was floated this week by Senator Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who serves on the bipartisan deficit-reduction supercommittee and is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Almost all of the deficit panel’s work has been done in secret, but some details of an overall proposal backed by Baucus and some other Democrats became known Wednesday: about $3 trillion would be cut from the projected budget deficit over the next decade through equal parts new revenue and cuts, including reductions in Social Security and Medicare.
The proposed changes to Social Security center on switching the consumer price index used to calculate cost-of-living adjustments, a shift that would affect the program for retirees and the disabled and hundreds of other programs. The new formula - called the chained consumer price index - is designed to more accurately measure inflation and is updated more frequently.
Josh Gordon, policy director at the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on deficit-reduction policies, said moving to a more accurate index is a common-sense way to reduce the deficit.
“I don’t think it should be considered a benefit cut because it’s a more accurate measurement of inflation,’’ he said. “If the universal clock was off by a few minutes and we readjusted it, I don’t think people would say we were cutting minutes. It’s simply making things more accurate.’’
“But of course anytime you touch Social Security, it’s politically perilous,’’ he said.
The overall proposal from Baucus quickly stirred familiar opposition. Republicans, many of whom have backed the Social Security changes in other deficit reduction talks, immediately rejected the Democrat’s offer because it included new taxes. And some Democrats pushed back against the cuts in entitlement programs.
“For me, it’s pretty close to a nonstarter,’’ said Representative Michael E. Capuano, the Somerville Democrat, who called the idea of curbing cost-of-living adjustments a betrayal to seniors. “You’re pretty darn close to lying to an entire generation.’’
Senator John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who serves on the deficit-reduction panel, was noncommittal.
In a statement, a Kerry spokeswoman said the senator has fought for years for seniors but believes the 12 members of the panel must be willing to initially consider all proposals, even those they had previously opposed.
Earlier this week, Kerry called on the members to consider a comprehensive package that would include tax increases on the rich combined with extensive cuts as a way to restore confidence with the US markets. Kerry’s call to action did not specify what should be cut.
The Social Security proposal was part of the failed deficit-reduction talks for a comprehensive $4 trillion deal between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, this summer. Some Democrats skewered Obama for considering the change, and when the president released his own deficit-reduction plan last month, it had no Social Security changes.
Altering the program could hurt incumbents in elections. A poll of 800 likely voters conducted last month by the Democratic strategy group Lake Research Partners found that 70 percent oppose any cuts to Social Security and Medicare as part of a deficit-reduction deal. In addition, 66 percent oppose any changes to the current cost-of-living formula, with that number rising to 73 percent among respondents 55 and older.
The poll was conducted for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
Hoping to capitalize on that opposition, the group recently launched a campaign dubbed “Hands off-No Cuts’’ to fight proposed reductions in the programs. The committee said it is planning local and national radio and TV advertising, petition drives, rallies, and phone banks.
AARP, a politically potent group that works on behalf of seniors, has also opposed moving to a chained price index. The group has said the change would harm thousands of seniors and should only be considered as part of a standalone plan to strengthen Social Security, not as part of a deficit-reduction deal.
The Massachusetts Senior Action Council is planning a rally on Nov. 9 at the Wang Theatre that it says will draw thousands opposed to reductions in Social Security.
“The reality is that Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid are part of people’s survival,” said Carolyn Villers, the council’s executive director. “When you begin to cut away programs, it’s not about a lifestyle. We’re talking about people’s ability to pay for their housing, to have food on the table, to get the health care they need.’’
In Massachusetts, the average senior receives $13,000 annually in Social Security benefits, according to the council. Like their counterparts nationwide, they have not received a cost-of-living adjustment in three years. Next year, seniors are scheduled to receive a 3.6 percent increase.
Arcenia Allen, 72, a disabled cancer survivor from Dorchester, said she worries that changes in the cost-of-living formula will force her to cut out the medications she and her husband rely on. As it is, she said, she can barely make ends meet on her $448 monthly Social Security check.
“It’s my life, but Congress doesn’t know that, because it doesn’t affect them,’’ she said, wiping away tears during an interview at the council’s office in Boston. “They’re killing the seniors; and it’s not fair.’’Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alex Katz can be reached at email@example.com.