There is a lot of news coming from the Social Security Administration today. First, SSA has published new instructions that allow the agency to process more claims for same-sex couples who qualify for Social Security benefits.
“This latest policy development lets the agency recognize some non-marital legal relationships as marriages for determining entitlement to benefits. These instructions also allow Social Security to begin processing many claims in states that do not recognize same-sex marriages or non-marital legal relationships. We have consulted with the Department of Justice and determined that the Social Security Act requires the agency to follow state law in Social Security cases. The new policy also addresses Supplemental Security Income claims based on same-sex relationships. Your same-sex marriage may affect your SSI eligibility or payment amount.
If you are in, or are a surviving spouse of, a same-sex marriage or non-marital legal same-sex relationship, we encourage you to apply right away for benefits.”
The SSA website has more details including this Fact Sheet.
Also, today President Obama announced plans to nominate current Acting SSA Commissioner, Carolyn Colvin, to serve as the Commissioner. Colvin has served in an “acting” capacity for more than a year so it’s encouraging to see that critical position at SSA finally filled. In addition to being a former NCPSSM Board of Trustee Member, the nominee has filled numerous roles at the SSA going back to 1994. She has also served as the Director of the Department of Health and Human Services for both D.C. and Montgomery County.
The Social Security Administration’s budget has been under assault for years. Today the Senate Special Committee on Aging will examine the real-life impact these cuts are having on millions of seniors, people with disabilities, survivors and their families:
“The hearing, the culmination of a bipartisan committee staff investigation into service reductions at the Social Security Administration (SSA), comes at a time when baby boomers are filing record numbers of retirement, disability and survivor claims with the agency. Despite the rising demand, the SSA is currently in the midst of the largest five-year decline in field offices in its 79-year history. Budget cuts have, in part, led the agency to close 64 field offices and 533 temporary mobile offices since 2010. The SSA has also shed some 11,000 workers over the last three years and continues to reduce or eliminate a variety of in-person services while trying to shift seniors and others online to conduct their business.”
According to the New York Times:
“The field offices served over 43 million people last year. About 10 percent of the visitors filed for benefits, and 30 percent were seeking new or replacement Social Security cards.
... Nancy A. Berryhill, a deputy commissioner at the agency, said its budget and work force had not kept pace with what she described as “a staggering 27 percent increase” in claims for retirement benefits, to 3.3 million last year, from 2.6 million in 2007.
Social Security encourages consumers to use the Internet to do business with the agency. In 2013, Ms. Berryhill said, ‘we received nearly half of all Social Security retirement and disability applications online, and the percentage of people who choose to file online continues to grow.’”
Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times correctly points out the problem with this shift to online services:
But is that an adequate substitute? No way. For one thing, you have to know that your statement is available via the Internet, you have to know where to find it, and you have to be able to navigate a registration procedure that is not all that user-friendly -- especially for someone not familiar with navigating the Web, and double-especially for someone without easy access to a computer. Despite a claim that we all live in the digital world today, those are not small groups.
Importantly, the Social Security Administration has made no discernible effort to proactively advise Americans that the paper statements are a thing of the past. In other words, what was once its most effective outreach to millions of people has disappeared without a trace, or a single word of warning.
Social Security says that if you have problems accessing the online service, you can get help at a Social Security office. Of course, those offices, which used to be open until 4 p.m., are now open only till 3:30. Starting in mid-November, they'll only be open till 3. And starting Jan. 2, they'll be closing at noon Wednesdays.
"There's already an enormous amount of unhappiness for people who walk to their Social Security office and find a sign saying, 'We closed at 3:30,'" says Webster Phillips, a former Social Security associate commissioner who now works with the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.”
In testimony submitted to the Senate Aging Committee, NCPSSM President/CEO Max Richtman says:
“...the National Committee believes any individual who has paid Social Security taxes has the right to face-to-face service within a reasonable distance of their home.
The National Committee also is concerned that seniors and low-income individuals who are accustomed to conducting business on a face-to-face basis will suffer undue hardship when faced with the need for a benefit verification letter or SSN printout. Many in this population lack access to and are not familiar with computers and printers. I am also concerned that shifting this administrative burden to SSA call centers will only increase the current average wait time of 26 minutes.”
While some Members of Congress appear quick to blame the Social Security Administration for these closures, as if they’ve happened in a vacuum, others have been warning years of budget cuts to the SSA -- happening at the same time service needs are increasing -- would ultimately hurt millions of Americans who rely on the Social Security benefits they've worked a lifetime to earn:
“Representative Xavier Becerra of California, the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, has repeatedly expressed concerns about the agency’s operating budget, which was $11 billion in 2013, about 4 percent less than in 2010. ‘No one should be surprised that service hours have been reduced, wait times have increased and local offices have closed,’ Mr. Becerra said.”
We’ve wasted years of political discourse led by a billion dollar Wall Street campaign to convince America we can’t afford a strong Social Security system. While those like Alan Simpson, Pete Peterson and Paul Ryan, believe middle class families should foot the bill for trillions in tax breaks for huge corporations and the wealthiest among us, step outside Washington and Wall Street and it’s clear the average American disagrees.
Our nation’s middle class continues to struggle and for older workers, the prospect of retirement remains elusive. A new CBS poll describes the economic realities facing most Americans.
“Seven of 10 Americans who haven't retired yet find it hard to save for retirement while also paying the bills and meeting their basic living expenses, a new CBS News poll shows. Not surprisingly, those earning less are having more difficulty setting money aside. More than 80 percent of people making less than $50,000 a year say it is hard to keep up with bills and save for retirement at the same time, and half say it is very hard.
"There is a segment of the population who cannot afford food and rent and to save for retirement, and they rationally choose rent and food over retirement savings," said Anthony Webb, senior research economist with Boston College's Center for Retirement Research.”
According to the 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a sizable percentage of workers report they have virtually no savings and investments. More than a third (36 percent) of retired civilian workers say they have less than $1,000 (up from 28 percent in 2013). A quarter of workers and 17 percent of retirees indicate that their current level of debt is higher than it was five years ago. The CBS poll received similar responses:
“But the country's troubling shortfall in retirement savings isn't confined to lower-income earners. More than 60 percent of those earning between $50,000 and $100,000 a year say it is hard to save for retirement, according to the telephone poll of more than 1,000 adults around the U.S.”
Social Security remains the only stable source of income for many families who are still rebuilding after our nation’s recent brush with economic collapse. This is exactly why it’s time to shift the debate to where it should have been all along...boosting benefits.
Building upon the growing public support for expanding Social Security, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) has launched the Boost Social Security Now education campaign to inform and mobilize our membership, grassroots networks and on-line communities to convince Congress that now is the time to boost benefits, not cut them.
Please take a moment and join our growing movement. Call Congress, Write a Letter and Sign our Petition telling Washington Now’s the time to Boost Social Security!
Thanks to YES Magazine for this terrific infographic which lays out the truth about Social Security in such a simple, common sense, way!
Reducing access to Social Security Administration field offices has been underway for a long time. In 2012, the SSA announced it would reduce field office hours, closing at 3:00pm weekdays and noon on Wednesdays. 80 field offices have also been shuttered permanently. In addition, the mailings of annual statements—which are the SSA’s most effective form of communication sent directly to beneficiaries about their earnings and benefits-- were cut off completely in 2011. All in the name of cost-savings. Thankfully, SSA has announced paper mailings will resume.
“The Social Security Administration is finalizing plans to resume mailing paper Social Security statements to some workers in September 2014. Statements will be sent to workers every five years in the year they attain ages 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60, if they are not registered to receive online statements or already receiving benefits.” US News & World Report
But, as reported in labornotes, SSA employees are concerned there is much worse news still to come for SSA offices across the nation if a proposed strategic plan called Vision 2025 is adopted:
“Bureaucrats are mulling closure of most of SSA’s more than 1,000 community field offices in the U.S., where 43 million people sought services last year.
Even as the number of visitors continues to grow, Vision 2025 would virtually eliminate face-to-face service, replacing it with Internet services and an 800 phone number.
Thirty thousand field office employees would be laid off—following nearly 11,000 positions already eliminated. When SSA sought its employees’ input for Vision 2025, they responded overwhelmingly that field offices were vital to the agency’s mission.”
Front line SSA workers understand the importance of person-to-person contact and worry about replacing it with a website:
“... according to surveys of SSA employees, many claimants who file on the internet make decisions that could lead to the permanent loss of benefits. SSA employees are trained to catch those mistakes.
Ryan Gurganious, a claims rep for the disabled in North Carolina, cited an example: “When a disabled person is working, we’ll ask them, ‘In your job do you have any special expenses you have to pay to be able to work?’ They might say, ‘I have to get the county transportation service to come pick me up in my wheelchair, and that’s a $40 fee every month.’
“We know that that $40 comes out of the equation when we’re figuring their benefit, so they’ll get a larger SSI check. But the computer’s not going to ask them that.”
Labor Notes staffer Jenny Brown cites a personal example. Her father was originally told he was just shy of the required work credits to get Social Security benefits. He’d worked for many years for a state college that wasn’t part of the system at the time.
But an alert field office worker realized that he was also a World War II combat veteran—and a special rule for those vets put him over the limit to get a monthly check.
David Sheagley, an AFGE representative and SSA teleservice-center representative in Cleveland, notes that SSA workers “assist folks during stress-filled transitions whether it be death, disability, or retirement. In other words, our mission at SSA absolutely requires that human beings be available to talk with the public.”
We couldn’t agree more about the importance of person-to-person service for Social Security beneficiaries and hope any long-range planning at SSA keeps this at the heart of it's mission.
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