Social Security’s Cost-of-Living Adjustments Must Not Come at the Expense of Americans’ Other Basic Needs

SNAP and Social Security must work in tandem to meet the needs of the nearly 9 million individuals who depend on both critical programs. Right now, they’re working against each other.

Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) at a news conference with members of the House Democratic Women’s Caucus, including Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.) (left) and Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), outside the U.S. Capitol on May 25, 2023, to highlight how a possible federal default would hurt women and families. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Blessed be the name of the federal government—it giveth and it certainly knows how to taketh away. And if you are one of the nearly 9 million Americans who receive Social Security and SNAP, the government certainly can taketh away. For those Americans, Social Security’s cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) increases can be a blessing, providing extra cushion as prices go up. But they can also be a curse, taking away when SNAP benefits are needed the most. 

Right now, the Social Security COLA is counted as income, meaning that an individual’s SNAP benefits could be cut or slashed altogether with each annual COLA increase. The Social Security COLA was created to help ensure that Social Security benefits do not lose value over time. When inflation is high, why are we undermining SNAP benefits with cuts? Sadly, this is an unfair reality that hurts too many veterans, seniors and individuals with disabilities, for whom Social Security is often their sole source of income.

When Social Security COLA was raised by 8.7 percent in 2023, approximately 36 percent of SNAP households saw their benefits decrease by an estimated $32 a month—a huge impact, considering the average monthly SNAP benefit for all Social Security and SSI beneficiaries is under $200. 

Last Thursday, the Social Security Administration announced a 3.2 percent COLA increase for 2024. While it is a drop from last year, I fear how it may impact my constituents when it takes effect. I think of Americans already shopping at the margins, calculating each penny as they place items in their cart, and putting food back that stretches their tight budgets too far. Where are they supposed to cut back?

This counterproductive outcome effectively renders the assistance meant to help the most vulnerable inefficient—precisely when it is needed most. For these families and individuals, COLA increases maintain their standard of living; they are a means of keeping pace with the rising costs of basic goods. 

The solution is clear: COLA increases should not be counted as income, and in turn, against SNAP eligibility or benefits.

With SNAP and Social Security serving as the cornerstone of America’s safety net program, the most effective anti-poverty and anti-hunger programs, we need to ensure that SNAP and Social Security are working in tandem to meet the real needs of the nearly 9 million individuals who depend on both critical programs. Right now, these programs are working against each other, and millions of vulnerable Americans are forced to bear the consequences. 

SNAP already excludes income that a household receives for several other purposes. For example, benefits from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP) are exempt from SNAP eligibility and benefit calculations. I see no reason why the Social Security COLA shouldn’t be exempt too—which is why I am pushing for parity.

My COLA’s Don’t Count Act, which I introduced with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), addresses a growing issue as the cost of necessities rise: the erosion of purchasing power for those dependent on fixed incomes, particularly poor families, our seniors and disabled citizens. It is only fair that the benefits they receive accurately reflect the economic challenges they face.

Social Security COLA increases—designed to help recipients keep pace with rising expenses—should provide relief from, not increase, food insecurity.

Failing to support our most vulnerable members of society in times of economic hardship can lead to greater long-term costs, in the form of increased poverty, healthcare expenses and social services. Investing in SNAP is not just a financial commitment; it’s an investment in the wellbeing of our society. SNAP helps ensure that Americans have the nourishment they need. Food isn’t an expense that can be forgone or pushed off to the next month—it is vital. People shouldn’t be forced to go hungry and face food insecurity.

My legislation sends a clear message: As a society, we refuse to push our most vulnerable citizens further into the abyss of poverty. It acknowledges the economic realities faced by seniors who are low-income or on fixed incomes and ensures that COLA’s do not come at the expense of meeting their basic needs.

In a nation as prosperous as ours, we should not allow this policy to continue to squeeze our most vulnerable. The solution is clear: COLA increases should not be counted as income, and in turn, against SNAP eligibility or benefits. By ensuring that Social Security COLA works efficiently with other essential programs, we can create a more equitable and effective safety net—one that truly supports those who need it most—when they need it most.

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U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) was elected to represent Wisconsin’s 4th Congressional District in 2004, making her the first African American elected to Congress from the state of Wisconsin. She serves on the Ways and Means Committee and the Joint Economic Committee. She is also a member of the Black Maternal Health Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus and serves as Communications Task Force co-chair for the Democratic Women's Caucus. She was born in Racine, Wis., and raised in Milwaukee. She graduated from Marquette University. She started a community credit union as a VISTA volunteer and was honored as national “VISTA Volunteer of the Decade” from 1976-1986. Before being elected to Congress in 2004, she served in both the Wisconsin state Senate (1993-2004) and the Wisconsin state Assembly (1989-92). In 2000, Rep. Moore earned a Harvard University certificate for senior executives in state and local government. She has been honored by several local, state and national organizations for her work as a legislator.