NEW YORK — Concerned about Social Security recipients, veterans, and people on disability payments struggling to make ends meet, President Obama is asking Congress to send them each a $250 check next year – similar to the checks they received in May as part of the economic stimulus legislation.
For the average retiree on Social Security, it would be the equivalent of getting a 2 percent increase in benefits. In total, the White House would like to give the money to some 57 million Americans, including individuals on Supplemental Security Income, railroad retirement and disability beneficiaries, and public-employee retirees.
“The president thinks in the light of economic conditions we face, it is appropriate we continue the benefit, and he calls on Congress to pass it,” said a senior administration official Wednesday, briefing reporters.
The payments would cost $13 billion, the White House estimates. But Mr. Obama does not want the money to come out of the Social Security Trust Funds, said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We generally think programs should be paid for,” said the official. “We plan to work with Congress to discuss financing, but we are not insisting it be paid for.”
If the potential program is not financed by cutting another program or raising a fee or tax, it would increase the budget deficit, which is currently estimated to be $1.17 trillion for fiscal year 2010.
The White House did not specify when the payments would be made if Congress agrees to them. “We don’t have a specific timetable,” the senior official said.
The White House decision to ask for the $250 payments comes just before a scheduled announcement Thursday that for the first time, Social Security recipients will not receive an automatic cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) next year. That’s because inflation declined from the third quarter of 2008 to the third quarter of this year.
“It’s kind of saying we will offset this to some extent with this payment,” says Brian Bethune, chief US financial economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass. “It’s one way to keep those people happy.”
Indeed, some seniors’ advocates hailed the proposal by the White House. “The White House clearly understands how devastating the rising costs of health care and the loss of retirement savings have been to seniors during this recession,” said Barbara Kennelly, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, in a statement.
In 2009, Social Security payments were raised by 5.8 percent, reflecting a much higher inflation rate that was driven by soaring energy prices. Gasoline, a component of the Consumer Price Index, peaked at more than $4 a gallon. Today, the average US price of gasoline is $2.48 a gallon, according to AAA.
The White House also intends to prevent reductions in the amounts that workers can contribute to their individual retirement accounts, 401(k) programs, and other tax-favored retirement plans.
This year, no more than $16,500 can be contributed to a 401(k) program. There was concern that the amount would be reduced to $16,000, said another senior White House official, who also asked not to be named. But, the official added, “It won’t.”