Remember this number: 234.242. It’s the average consumer price index for the third quarter of 2014. It's an important number because it will help determine whether 60 million Social Security beneficiaries get a benefit increase in 2017.

Yes, you read that right: 60 million people will be looking for, and hoping for, some kind of benefit increase in 2017. Last year 43 million retirees and family members received Social Security benefits. Another 6.1 million people were survivors of deceased workers. And 10.9 million disabled workers and their families received benefits. That’s a lot of people. For most of those 60 million, Social Security is their primary source of income. For some, it’s their only source of income.

That makes cost of living benefit adjustments pretty important. But, like last year, we’re on track for another cliffhanger--- even as major expenses continue to rise. In April the trailing 12-month rate of inflation for food was 0.9 percent. Shelter costs were rising at 3.2 percent. The cost of medical care also rose at 3.2 percent. We're feeling inflation everywhere but at the gas pump.

But what if there is no increase for 2017?

It will be only the fourth time since automatic cost-of-living adjustments began in 1975. But all four years of no increase will have occurred since 2010.

The most recently released CPI figure, for April, was a mere 233.424. That's a smidgeon higher than the 233.278 of last year, but lower than the 234.242 of 2014. On that basis, a single month, 2017 would be another year of nada. Zip.

But the index was also a rousing 0.8 percent higher than the same month last year. So maybe there’s some inflation after all. (More on that later.)

But we're fortunate. The adjustment doesn't hang on a single month. It’s usually based on the index average for the third quarter, compared to the same quarter for the previous year. But after a year with no increase, the adjustment is based on the index average from two years earlier. In this case, 2014.

The quarterly measure keeps freaky months from making dramatic changes, up or down. And we’ve got months to go--- May, June, July, August and September. The actual determination will depend on those last three months.

Sounds like a horse race, doesn't it? One CPI measures against another. But it’s more like watching paint dry. Still, how the race ends will determine whether Social Security checks increase next year. Billions of dollars--- all going to good causes like food and shelter--- hang in the balance.

So, if you want to watch this race closely, allow me to offer directions to a web-side seat.

  • First, to keep a steady eye on the average from 2014, you need only remember the figure above, 234.242.
  • Second, to watch the monthly CPI horse, you need to check with the Department of Labor Statistics at the middle of each month. They post the figure on the web at 8:30 AM. The figure for May will be out on June 16.

Most of the press release is about the CPI-U. That’s the one that measures for all urban consumers. But you’ll find a paragraph on the CPI-W for urban wage earners and clerical workers, toward the bottom of the release

If the CPI-W average for the third quarter exceeds 233.278 there’s hope of a benefit increase. The gong will ring when Social Security compares the average index figure for July, August and September this year to the same months last year.

Here are the numbers to watch for:

  • It will take a CPI-W quarterly average of 236.58 to get a one percent benefit increase.
  • It will take a CPI-W quarterly average of 238.93 to get a two percent benefit increase.
  • It will take a CPI-W quarterly average of 241.27 to get a three percent benefit increase.

Does it matter if there is no benefit increase? I think so. Here’s why. The detailed figures for the CPI-U tell us a lot about inflation. Prices for “all items less food and energy” rose at a 2.1 percent year over year rate in April.

No increase would lock 60 million people into declining purchasing power. That could slow our economy to a crawl.

• Editor’s note: The figures in this column have been corrected to reflect calculations based on the third quarter of 2014, not 2015 as originally reported. While most benefit changes are based on figures from the previous year, after a year of no increase the benefit increase is based on the period with the higher CPI average. The change makes a benefit increase still less likely due to the 0.4 percent decline between 2014 and 2015.