Mary Johnson is quick to tell you she is not a trained economist, but that belies a deep knowledge that has left a lasting impression when it comes to U.S. benefits analysis.

Johnson, a Social Security and Medicare policy analyst with the Alexandria, Va.-based seniors advocacy group, the Senior Citizens League (TSCL), has been tracking and predicting the annual Social Security cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for the past 30 years.

And for the most part, she has been spot-on.

That's important because her projections were highly sought after by various national media outlets. But that will end on March 15, when Johnson, who turns 73 in September, retires.

“What I learned to do I was self-taught. I spent many, many years on the phone talking to economists and the Bureau of Labor Statistics and kind of learned about the CPI and how the COLA was calculated,” she said. “And that was before we had good Internet contact.”

Johnson said it was always exciting to see if her projections turned out to be right because “I was forced to get it right. I didn’t want to get embarrassed by not being on point.”

TSCL said her work has been an integral resource as the nation has debated the future of Social Security and other federal benefits in recent years.

“The accuracy and depth of Mary's insights have established her as a trusted authority in the field. Her contributions have helped shape discussions and decisions about the league's work and the ever-important Social Security reform, healthcare, and more considerations,” TSCL said in announcing Johnson’s retirement last month.

Johnson said becoming a spokesperson for TSCL has been one of the joys of her life. “I love hearing your questions and working with each of you,” she said of representatives of the media. She said the projection methods she developed over the years to calculate the COLA are not necessarily the same as those of others and have been based on information from the BLS, including data from the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W).

Johnson became the spokesperson for TSCL in 2015 and began sharing her monthly COLA forecasts publicly with the news media at that time. And long before that, she shared them in-house, she said.

Johnson’s interest in the Social Security COLA and other retirement issues began when she was hired by TSCL in 1995, three years after the nonpartisan seniors’ group was established. She began writing for its newsletter, the Social Security and Medicare Advisor, and one of the first big stories she had to tackle was a proposal by the Boskin Commission—appointed in 1996 by the Senate Finance Committee—to change the way inflation was measured because the committee felt Social Security recipients were overpaid, she said.

“They were recommending changes that would have reduced the measured rate of inflation by about 1.1%,” which would cut the average benefits by one-third, Johnson said. “That was controversial because they were telling the body of economists who are responsible for measuring inflation what methodology they should use,” she said.

Johnson tackled the issue because it is a top concern for retired and older adults “who just want fair protection of their benefits.” She said she wanted to be able to explain to Americans how much the proposed cut would affect the average benefit. “But I rarely could find that information because estimates of the COLA were not released by anyone back then," she said.

“I thought it was so backwards that lawmakers were making these decisions without that information, which I felt really did not represent the interest of the public. So I took it upon myself and went searching for information,” Johnson said. “I sat down with my little desktop calculator, and I figured it out and that was highly objected to by Congress after they started getting calls from the many people who had read my story in the newsletter."

Since then, Johnson said she has written extensively about the issue and even authored white papers for use at Congressional hearings. She said she also shares research with the legislative staff at TSCL to help them “better understand the implications for retirees and older adults and how certain changes could translate into higher costs, for example, when they are related to Medicare."

Shannon Benton, executive director of TSCL, said Johnson was an integral part of the team and will be sorely missed. “We’ve had several people leave the team over the years and I have never had to take a deep breath in and a slow breath out as I did when Mary told me she was retiring,” Benton said. “She is just a wealth of information. You can’t just run ads on Indeed to replace a Mary.”

Johnson said she has been most excited about the conversation around Social Security reform, moving away from solely cutting benefits to a much broader debate about making benefits more adequate and better protected against inflation. “That was a very significant change in perspective, and we have a much more balanced conversation and debate going on than we did 30 years ago,” she said. “That makes me feel that the Senior Citizens League and maybe Mary Johnson, to some degree, had a role to play in that.”

She cited the Social Security 2100 Act by Rep. John Larson as a significant development. The bill calls for increasing benefits by taxing the wealthy and replacing the annual cost-of-living adjustment formula with the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (or the CPI-E), which Larson argues better reflects the spending pattern of the elderly. The Senior Citizens League has been an advocate of the index change for years.

“Thirty years ago, I would never have dreamed that I would ever hear such legislation as John Larson’s. ... This is very gratifying to me,” she said, noting Social Security reform discussions have gained momentum over the past 10 years as baby boomers have started to retire.

As Johnson looks to retirement, she plans to spend the first few months “to experience life without a publication deadline,” she said. But she noted that she also will not be “experiencing a carefree retirement” because of her duties as a geriatric manager for her disabled brother, who recently has been having significant health issues. “So I have parachuted right into the frontline,” she said.

But Johnson said she will also make time for her “hobby” of keeping up with the CPI. “I am going to be maintaining the data because that’s my personal interest,” she said, adding that she will share it with anybody who wants it. And she will use the information in discussions with her financial advisor, she said.

As for the future of Social Security, Johnson said she is confident that it is not going anywhere because, even if the program becomes insolvent, employers by law are still going to withhold the Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes. “Those payroll taxes will be enough to pay about three-fourths of the amount currently promised,” she said. 

Furthermore, Johnson said she believes boomers will continue to be politically active and demand more accountability from their lawmakers. Then watch out for the younger generations, she said.

“The little I know from social media; they are very oriented toward what’s equitable. And so, I trust the kids,” Johnson said.