Americans contact the Social Security Administration (SSA) at the most vulnerable points in their lives – upon the death of a loved one, upon retirement, or when facing a life-changing disability. At those points, these individuals should receive compassionate, timely, and efficient service in response to their needs. After all, they have paid their Social Security taxes for years, earning the benefits they seek, and the right to high quality service when applying for those benefits. Unfortunately, after years of Congressional cuts to Social Security’s administrative budget, many individuals already were not receiving the service they earned and deserve prior to the pandemic. The office closures implemented in response to the coronavirus, while necessary to protect the public and the Agency’s employees, have contributed to even more service deterioration. It will take a significant investment of resources just to bring SSA back to its previous – and still inadequate – service levels. Much more will need to be done to provide Americans with the service levels they deserve and have earned.
Administrative Budget Requests Have Been Cut for Years
Social Security’s operating budget shrank by 13 percent from 2010 to 2021 in inflation-adjusted terms even as the number of Social Security beneficiaries grew by 22 percent and 10,000 baby boomers a day are reaching retirement age. When workloads increase and staff is reduced due to inadequate funding, service deteriorates. The media has focused on the unprecedented delays disability applicants face when waiting for a hearing on their case – the wait in Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 (the last full year before the pandemic) was 506 days – but service in other areas has deteriorated as well. For example:
- Staff for Social Security’s toll-free 800 number shrank 12 percent since 2010 while call volume increased 6 percent during that time. In 2010 callers waited, on average, 3-4 minutes to speak to a customer service representative; in 2019 the wait was over 20 minutes. In 2010 callers received a busy signal about 5 percent of the time; in 2019 that rose to 14 percent.
- Prior to the pandemic, Social Security’s local field offices served over 40 million visitors each year. These offices closed to the public in March 2020 in response to the pandemic. In a July 2020 audit, SSA found that wait times at 9 of SSA’s 10 regions increased between FYs 2010 and 2019. Moreover, the number of field office visitors who waited for longer than 1 hour for service increased from 2.3 to 4.2 million during that period. These visitors are primarily people with disabilities or the elderly who can ill afford to sit in a cramped waiting room for service they have earned.
- Social Security Statements are required by law to be issued biennially to all workers, which helps ensure accuracy by allowing workers to know what earnings are reported to SSA and to correct any errors in a timely way. This task becomes increasingly difficult as years pass, employers change or go out of business, and the documentation to prove income is lost. Statements also help workers plan for their retirement by providing a starting point for the income they can expect to receive, helping them plan for how much they need to save in the future. Finally, annual statements are invaluable to inform workers on the types of benefits provided by Social Security and to build and strengthen public confidence that the program will be there when they need it. Statement mailings have been reduced from 153 million issued in 2010 to 19 million in 2020, now issued only to workers over age 60 who do not have an online My Social Security account.
- Waiting times for decisions on Social Security applications continue to increase. Especially noteworthy: Disability applications, where it takes over one full year to get a decision from an administrative law judge. Thousands die each year while waiting for a decision on their claim.
Congress Needs to Address this Problem Now
The Administration has acknowledged the need to increase the Social Security Administration’s funding by requesting a 10 percent increase in its budget submission. While this increase is appreciated and long overdue, it is still less than the amount the Agency itself says it needs to do its job effectively. On April 26, 2021, then-SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, recommended a 12 percent increase for 2022.
As Congress begins its budget process, it is critical that the Social Security Administration receive adequate funding. This is especially important not only to allow the Agency to emerge from pandemic restrictions safely, but also to address the additional responsibilities envisioned by President Biden to administer the new proposed Paid Family Leave program. Although few details are available about this new program, SSA estimated it would cost $750 million in 2022 alone to implement. If this new program is ultimately administered through SSA, it is critical that any new responsibilities do not come at the cost of completing the Agency’s core mission.
Let’s be realistic. Starving the Social Security Administration’s administrative funding is a backdoor attempt to dismantle Social Security by eroding the public’s confidence in the program, especially since these funds come from Social Security’s Trust Fund and not general revenues.
NATIONAL COMMITTEE POSITION
SSA’s administrative funding has been neglected for far too long. It’s time for members of Congress to adequately fund SSA so that it can perform the vital tasks for their retired, disabled and survivor constituents. During the upcoming debate on FY 2022 appropriations, the National Committee urges Senators and Representatives to increase Social Security’s operating budget at least to the President’s request level so it can do its job for the American people.