About 20 protesters formed a human chain in the rain in front of North Charleston City Hall today as part of a nationwide protest against chained CPI, a proposed new way of calculating Social Security benefits that would mean a decrease in monthly cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security beneficiaries.

A consumer price index (CPI) is a monthly set of data that shows changes in prices paid by urban consumers for certain goods and services. Currently, the Social Security Administration uses the CPI for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) to determine monthly benefit payouts, but President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget proposal includes a switch to Chained-CPI-U, which would combine several CPI formulas into one. As Washington Post Wonkblog writer Dylan Matthews points out, the new policy could potentially lead to regressive tax hikes and push some retirees into higher tax brackets.

The chained CPI would also take into account what have been called “substitution effects,” instances where seniors could cut costs by purchasing cheaper products — say by purchasing store-brand cereal instead of name-brand, or white bread instead of multi-grain wheat bread.

“The chained CPI assumes that a lower cost-of-living adjustment is acceptable because consumers can substitute cheap products when prices go up,” said Donna Dewitt, one of the organizers of the protest. “Healthcare costs, however, consume a large amount of seniors’ income, and these costs cannot simply be substituted with a cheaper version. A senior cannot just substitute a triple bypass with a double bypass because it’s cheaper.”

Dewitt is president of the South Carolina chapter of the Alliance for Retired Americans, an AFL-CIO union-affiliated group. The ARA opposes chained CPI and favors Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s Strengthening Social Security Act of 2013, which would create a new CPI-E tailored specifically to the needs of elderly Americans. The protest was part of an ARA national day of action along with protests in more than 40 other cities. The South Carolina chapter of the ARA claims 27,000 members.

The group assembled in North Charleston partly to send a message to Republican Sen. Tim Scott, who has had an office on the third floor of City Hall since getting promoted to senator in January and leaving his former campaign headquarters on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard. The left-leaning ARA assigns legislators a pro-retiree score based on 10 issues including Medicare privatization (which the ARA opposes) and senior programs cuts (which the ARA also opposes), and as a representative, Scott got a score of 0 percent for 2012.

Scott was not in the North Charleston office today, and the senator’s press office in Washington D.C. has not responded to a request for comment.

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