Social Security field offices that have been shuttered since the beginning of the pandemic will re-open on Thursday. That’s a relief for seniors and people with disabilities who have been unable to obtain in-person service for more than two years. But the Social Security Administration (SSA), which runs these field offices, already was struggling to provide adequate customer service before the pandemic because it has been chronically underfunded by the U.S. Congress. This could make for a rocky re-opening.
Social Security claimants seek in-person help at SSA field offices for a variety of essential services – from filing claims to getting copies of Social Security cards. They can talk face-to-face with an SSA employee and present necessary documentation in person. For some claimants – especially seniors – there simply is no replacement for this type of service. Yet SSA warns that customers “should expect long lines” and “may need to wait outside” as offices re-open.
One SSA customer suffering from chronic pain told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “It’ll be difficult for me… to stand up and wait in a line. I’ll have to sit on the sidewalk.” The Inquirer reports that even if customers are able to speak to an SSA representative in person, “claims processing will be slow when it starts up again.”
For years, SSA has been trying to steer customers away from the field offices and toward its website – which is fine for claimants who are computer-literate and have the necessary hardware and connectivity. But this simply isn’t the case for many seniors. Others are hesitant to share sensitive data like birthdates and Social Security numbers online. Considering the recent high-profile hacks of many of our nation’s private and public institutions, who can blame them?
Unfortunately, SSA was closing field offices well before COVID – many in underserved urban areas – in an attempt to cut costs. Why? Because beginning in 2010, Congress slashed SSA’s operating budget in the name of fiscal austerity. Since then, the agency’s funding has yet to be fully restored. Between 2010 and 2021, SSA’s operating budget fell by 13 percent in inflation-adjusted terms. During the same period, the number of beneficiaries grew by more than 22 percent!
The budget cuts hit SSA’s customer service capacity hard. The agency was forced to shrink its workforce. Not only were offices shuttered or their hours shortened, claimants trying to reach the agency’s toll-free number faced interminable hold times and recurring busy signals. Meanwhile, wait times for appeals hearings for disability benefits soared to over two years. More than 100,000 Americans with disabilities died awaiting a hearing – all because the agency has been woefully underfunded.
Operations are funded mainly from the Social Security trust fund, which Americans contribute to during their working years in exchange for retirement and disability benefits. Even though SSA is not funded through general revenues like most other agencies, its budget is still subject to the congressional appropriations process. In other words, workers have effectively paid for SSA’s operating expenses, but Congress limits the amount of money available to the agency every fiscal year.
The irony is that SSA is one of the most cost-effective federal agencies. It spends about 1 percent of total revenue on operations. (It also is one of the public’s favorite federal agencies, according to a recent survey – second only to the National Park Service.) And yet it gets caught up in the yearly budget battles between lawmakers who advocate cost-cutting for social programs and those who want the agency to be properly funded for the public’s benefit.
SSA funding has ticked-up somewhat since 2021, but not enough to make up for more than a decade of underfunding. The omnibus spending bill that Congress passed in March provided the SSA with $1 billion less than the White House requested, which in turn was less than what SSA says it needs. The Social Security Trust Fund, which is supposed to fund SSA operations, has a $2.9 trillion surplus. Congress should allow SSA to spend a few tenths of a percent more in order to provide the public with satisfactory service.
SSA has been forced to make due with inadequate funding for too long. SSA has cut corners, reduced staff, and closed field offices – to the detriment of Americans who depend on Social Security. (Making matters worse, the agency lost some 1,500 workers nationwide during the pandemic.) Many seniors and people with disabilities are no doubt glad that field offices are re-opening. After years of suffering through endless frustrations and sometimes fatal delays, they deserve a fully-funded and functional Social Security Administration.
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the nonprofit National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.