It only took President Trump a scant 16 months to nominate someone to head the Social Security Administration (SSA), which oversees the Social Security program and Supplemental Security Income for some 67 million Americans. Trump’s nominee, Andrew M. Saul, is a New York businessman, Republican donor, and former chairman of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which administers the retirement plan for U.S. government employees.
The Social Security Administration has run without a confirmed, full-fledged director for the past five years. The Republican-led Senate refused to confirm President Obama’s nominee, who departed as acting commissioner after the Trump administration took office. President Trump dragged his feet making a nomination, leaving acting chief Nancy Berryhill to lead an agency struggling to provide customer service in the wake of draconian budget cuts.
Appearing before the House Social Security subcommittee in March, National Committee president Max Richtman said that SSA needed “strong leadership” to achieve its mission, and that a new commissioner should be nominated and confirmed. Now that President Trump has finally selected someone, what do we really know about him?
Though he served on the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board for nine years, Andrew Saul has no real public record – good or bad – when it comes to Social Security. But his alignment with Republican politics (he was a top fundraiser for George W. Bush, who famously tried to privatize Social Security) and his membership on the board of a right-wing think tank, The Manhattan Institute, is not encouraging.
We need look no further than the Manhattan Institute’s website to glean the organization’s position on Social Security. In an article entitled, The Social Security Façade, the Institute propagates rightist myths that the program is going bankrupt and will no longer be able to pay benefits when today’s young people retire. In other words, it employs the time-worn tactic of dividing the generations to undermine Social Security:
“Young Americans are stuck paying into programs that, absent reform, will only partially be there for their retirements – if they’re around at all.” – Manhattan Institute website
The Institute believes that current Social Security benefits “are simply too generous,” and goes on to spread another falsehood:
“These entitlement programs function not only as wealth transfers from the young to the old, but from the poor to the wealthy… today’s seniors have an average of 47 times the wealth of households headed by adults under the age of 35.” – Manhattan Institute website
To link Mr. Saul to the Manhattan Institute’s viewpoint is not ‘guilt by association.’ It’s perfectly fair to connect him with the right-wing agenda of the think tank whose board he served on for several years, especially absent a public record of his own views on Social Security.
All of this leads us to question whether this is the man that millions of seniors, disabled, survivors, and SSI beneficiaries – many struggling to keep their heads above water financially – want to rely on to administer their benefits. During his confirmation hearings (expected to take place in June), Senate committee members should press Saul on these crucial questions:
- Does he believe in the Social Security program that has worked so well for 83 years – or would he seek to undermine it by advocating privatization?
- Can he empathize with beneficiaries living on an average monthly benefit below $1,400 per month?
- Will he encourage Congress to continue restoring badly needed funding for the Social Security Administration?
- Would he support further closings of Social Security field offices?
- How would he improve SSA’s beleaguered customer service at a time when 10,000 Baby Boomers reach retirement age every day?
Saul’s answers should fill in some important blanks, and clarify the more troubling aspects of his background. We have seen the damage Trump’s more ideological nominees can do as head of EPA, the Department of Education, and the Department of the Interior, among others. Let’s make sure not to install one as commissioner of Social Security.
The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare joined the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and other advocates Thursday to protest the scheduled closing of the Social Security Administration field office in Arlington, VA. The Social Security Administration plans to close the office on June 21, 2018.
Protesters gathered in 90-degree heat in front of the high-rise office building at 1401 Wilson Boulevard with signs reading “Keep SSA open,” and chanting “Social Security is our fight! Social Security is our right!” The rally was covered by print and broadcast news, featuring interviews with National Committee president Max Richtman and members of NCPSSM’s Capital Action Team (CAT) volunteers.
“Closing Social Security field offices like the one here in Arlington causes undue difficulty for elderly and working-class claimants who rely on public transportation to get here. If the office is shuttered as planned in June, these individuals will have to travel nearly two hours round-trip on Metro and Metrobus to the nearest Virginia office in Alexandria. This is unacceptable.” – Max Richtman, NCPSSM president
The scheduled closure of the Arlington office comes on the heels of others in heavily populated urban areas, including in Milwaukee and Chicago during the past year, and the announced closing of an SSA field office in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore (also effective this June). Since 2000, SSA has closed nearly 125 field offices nationwide.
One of the reasons SSA plans to close the office in Arlington is related to the alleged inability of another government agency, the General Services Administration (GSA), to find acceptable real estate in the area.
“We’ve heard this same excuse offered as the reason offices in other cities had to be closed. If GSA, which is the federal government’s real estate agent, can’t find acceptable space for a Social Security office in an area with a 20 percent vacancy rate, then perhaps they should go into a different line of work. Instead of GSA, SSA should be given authority to serve as its own real estate agent.“ – Max Richtman, NCPSSM president
Max Richtman writes about the issue in today’s edition of the Hill newspaper.
According to Witold Skwierczynski of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents Social Security field office workers, SSA is closing offices without following its own stated procedures, which include:
*Giving Congress and the public notice of a potential closing
*Analyzing the effect of such closings on transportation to the nearest office
*Analyzing the impact on SSA employees
So far, SSA has done none of this. In fact, SSA’s Inspector General is currently investigating the agency’s apparent breach of procedure. What’s more, Congress instructed SSA not to close any field offices until the Inspector General’s office completes its inquiry. By continuing to close field offices, Skwierczynski argues that SSA is not following guidelines it received from Congress – as well as its own policies.
Earlier this week, Max Richtman sent a letter to The Senate Committee on Aging demanding oversight of SSA office closures.
Congress slashed SSA’s operating budget by 11% (adjusted for inflation) from 2010-2017. The 2018 Omnibus Appropriations Act finally gave SSA a funding increase over 2017 levels. Of the $480 million dollar boost, only some $200 million was allocated for direct public service. The Social Security Administration will need even more funding in FY 2019 in order to keep offices open and improve customer service.
The administration of Social Security should not be a target of budget cuts, because it’s funded from payroll contributions by working Americans. It is only right that Congress fully fund SSA operations. The American people deserve the customer service they have already paid for. That means adequate resources for SSA to do its job, and no more field office closings.
The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare strongly objects to the scheduled closure of the Social Security Administration (SSA) field office in Arlington, VA, which currently serves some 25,000 seniors, people with disabilities, and many other beneficiaries every year. If the office is shuttered as planned on June 21st, lower income Social Security and SSI (Supplemental Security Income) claimants may find themselves traveling up to two hours round-trip on public transportation to an alternate field office. Once they arrive at the nearest alternative location, they will experience an average two-hour wait (based on national data) in a crowded office where it can be difficult to locate a seat – an extra hardship for seniors and people with disabilities.
“Closing Social Security field offices like the one in Arlington causes undue difficulty for elderly and working class claimants who rely on public transportation,” says National Committee president and CEO Max Richtman. “This is a consequence of Congressional underfunding of the Social Security Administration from 2010-2017, when Congress finally increased rather than cut SSA’s operating budget. Despite the recent funding boost, SSA continues to close field offices, primarily in urban neighborhoods.”
The closure of the Arlington office comes on the heels of others in heavily populated urban areas, including in Milwaukee and Chicago during the past year, and the announced closing of an SSA field office in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore (also effective this June). Since 2000, SSA has closed nearly 125 field offices nationwide. At the same time, thanks to budget cuts, the agency has been struggling to provide adequate customer service – with claimants experiencing long waits in crowded field offices, busy signals and interminable hold times on the 800 phone line, and average delays of nearly two years for a Social Security disability hearing. With 10,000 Baby Boomers reaching age 65 every day, SSA has been strained beyond its limits.
“We view the availability of conveniently located and adequately staffed Social Security field offices as crucial to maintaining public support for Social Security itself,” says Richtman. “If the public perceives their Social Security offices are being closed and service diminishing, their support for Social Security could deteriorate. Claimants must be able to access well-staffed Social Security field offices without traveling long distances or spending an undue amount of waiting time collecting their earned benefits.”
Richtman has just sent a letter on behalf of the National Committee to Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), the chair and ranking Democrat of the Senate Committee on Aging, imploring them to look into the recent field office closures.
As a former staff director of the Aging Committee, I know full well how effective the committee has been in overseeing federal agencies and programs and in identifying problems affecting older people and finding solutions. Therefore, we ask that the Special Committee on Aging hold hearings that focus on the need for high-quality service from SSA and the vital importance of a strong and vibrant network of local field offices. – Max Richtman’s letter to Sens. Collins and Casey, 4/26/18
Read the full letter here.
The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare has enthusiastically endorsed Leslie Cockburn for Congress representing Virginia’s 5th district. Cockburn, a filmmaker, journalist, and advocate for social change is running in the May Democratic primary for the opportunity to challenge incumbent Republican Tom Garrett.
“Leslie Cockburn is the right candidate for a district with a large senior population. She has committed herself to defending Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. Leslie recognizes that working Virginians have a right to their earned benefits when they retire, including the 181,000 District 5 residents collecting Social Security and the 134,000 Medicare beneficiaries. She knows the just path lies in protecting and expanding benefits, not cutting them,” – National Committee president and CEO Max Richtman.
Cockburn has taken Tom Garrett and his fellow Republicans to task for trying to undermine and slash programs that Virginia’s working families depend on. She blasts “corporate lobbyists and their allies in the White House and Capitol Hill for doing everything in their power to gut Medicaid… defund Social Security and Medicare… and cut billions in disability payments.” She calls these proposals “extreme and callous actions that will tear apart the fabric of our community”
Rep. Garrett’s positions could not be more different from Leslie Cockburn’s – or more wrongheaded. When it comes to Social Security, he plays the ‘generational card,’ insisting that the government “not break promises” to today’s seniors, but shred that guarantee for future retirees.
“It’s time for the people of District 5 to have a representative in Washington who will fight on their behalf instead of for corporate lobbyists, insurance companies, and Wall Street. Leslie Cockburn is that candidate,” says Richtman. “Let’s help send Tom Garrett home and put Leslie Cockburn in the U.S. Congress.” – Max Richtman
Read the National Committee’s endorsement letter here.
The author’s father, Cliff Adcock (R), readies to deliver Meals on Wheels to seniors in Escondido, CA
By Dan Adcock
At a press conference last year, President Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, infamously declared, “Meals on Wheels sounds great, [but] we’re not going to spend [money] on programs that cannot show that they actually deliver the promises that we’ve made to people.” Not surprisingly, the first two budget proposals Mulvaney crafted for the president would have eliminated the block grants that help to pay for Meals on Wheels.
Apparently, Mulvaney has had no personal experience with delivering meals to seniors who are unable to shop or cook safely. Shortly after Mulvaney made his ill-informed statement, my boss, National Committee president Max Richtman, suggested that President Trump “ride with a Meals on Wheels van and witness the profound benefits to our nation’s most vulnerable seniors.”
I can proudly say that I have done something the President and his budget director clearly have not. This month, I rode along with my father, Cliff Adcock, on his route as a Meals on Wheels volunteer in Escondido, California. As a public policy wonk, I have always appreciated the Meals on Wheels program – first as a Congressional staffer on a committee that oversaw the Older Americans Act (which includes Meals on Wheels), then, as an advocate for seniors during the past 24 years. In 1992, I helped write the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act, which at the time enjoyed broad, bipartisan support. My recent ride-along taught me that understanding policy is one thing – but on-the-ground experience with the program is altogether different.
My dad (a longtime Republican) started driving for San Diego Meals on Wheels last year. He says he was inspired to sign up by my mother, Eleanor, volunteering at a local hospital. I rode along with Dad on his 38-mile route during a holiday visit in December – and more recently a few weeks ago while traveling on business. I loved both experiences because the seniors who answered my dad’s knock on their doors greeted us with huge smiles and ample gratitude – not only for bringing them lunch and/or dinner – but also for what may have been their only social interaction all day.
During the journey in my dad’s 2017 Toyota Prius, I learned that delivering meals to seniors – many of whom are shut-ins – is not always easy. While some live in the city of Escondido – others have homes in rural areas several miles outside of town. Access is also complicated by recipients’ various disabilities. In one rural trailer park, we delivered to a senior who is nearly deaf and unable to answer the door no matter how my times you knock or ring. We had to access a key from a lockbox in order to let ourselves inside and deliver her meals. My Dad and I didn’t encounter her in December but got to say hello when we made our delivery this Spring. She was very happy to see us.
Next, we were off to deliver meals to another house in an even more remote area. The recipient was a pleasant woman with a German accent. I told her that I spoke a bit of German and used my limited vocabulary to have a short conversation in her native language. She seemed tickled that I made the effort and thanked us for the meals.
Our last stop was a delivery to a Korean War veteran suffering from dementia. (My dad is a Korea veteran, too). Sometimes he arrives behind schedule at the vet’s house due to late additions to his itinerary. If the meal comes after lunchtime, the vet becomes irritable. Fortunately, we were on time when I rode along, and found the man in good spirits. His adult daughter was visiting that day and thanked us for bringing her father’s lunch.
At the end of our two-and-a-half hour run, we returned the food containers to the seniors center. I thanked my dad for letting me accompany him on his route. The ride-along re-affirmed my belief in a program that I had experienced as an advocate and policymaker, but never up close and in person. Seeing the seniors’ joy and gratitude for the sustenance and social contact we provided enhanced my appreciation of Meals on Wheels tenfold.
I wish every member of Congress, the President, and Mick Mulvaney would ride-along with the Meals on Wheels van before considering cutting a single penny from the program. Who knows? A hug from a grateful senior might just melt their hearts – or at least compel them to put away the budget axes they’ve been sharpening. In fact, if they’re ever in Southern California and would like to accompany my dad on his route, I’d be happy to arrange it.
Dan Adcock is Director of Government Policy and Research at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.