Statement of Max Richtman President and CEO National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare
Before the Committee on Ways and Means
Subcommittee on Social Security
U.S. House of Representatives
Hearing on “Strengthening Social Security’s Customer Service”
May 17, 2022
Chairman Larson and Ranking Member Reed:
My name is Max Richtman, and I am the President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. The National Committee is a grassroots advocacy and educational organization dedicated to preserving and strengthening our Nation’s earned benefit programs, Social Security and Medicare, as well as a variety of safety net programs for seniors. Members of the National Committee come from all walks of life and every political persuasion. What unites them is their passion for protecting and strengthening these programs that are so vitally important to older Americans, people with disabilities and survivors.
On behalf of our millions of members and supporters, I am honored to submit this testimony as the subcommittee explores ways in which to strengthen the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) ability to serve the American public. As you know, Social Security represents the foundation of income security for the American people. Without a solid foundation, other programs designed to protect workers and their families from the ravages of death, disability and old age simply will not be able to adequately fulfill their missions. And the activities of the SSA are at the heart of the administration of the Social Security program.
The COVID pandemic has placed tremendous economic stress on the American people and our nation’s economy for over two years. Our government programs and agencies were not immune, and our ability to provide adequate services to the American people has suffered. Nowhere has the challenge of safely providing services been more apparent than with the Social Security Administration, as the Agency’s customer base is overwhelmingly elderly and disabled – two groups among the most vulnerable to the ravages of this deadly disease.
SSA and its employees have a long history of providing exemplary service to the American public, delivering critical support in the wake of historic hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and other disasters both natural and man-made. While the pandemic created unprecedented global challenges, SSA appears to be effectively surmounting the obstacles it has faced. Beginning in early April, SSA began re-opening its thousands of field offices to in-person meetings. Despite the fears of many advocacy groups, including our own, SSA appears to have successfully managed the transition. While there have been sporadic reports of long waits and crowded facilities, these appear to have been the exception rather than the rule. But the Agency’s success in re-opening its field offices safely has not come without a significant cost. Backlogs that pre-existed the pandemic have grown exponentially, staff levels have dropped precipitously, and the Agency will need the strong support of Congress if it is to continue fulfilling its mission to your constituents.
SSA and its employees have shown their dedication to their mission, but their efforts are simply not sustainable without adequate resources. While we appreciate President Biden’s proposed funding of $14.8 billion for the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) fiscal year (FY) 2023 appropriation for administrative expenses, the budget was prepared prior to Congress’s enactment of the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations bill for FY 2022. In this legislation, Congress provided only $13.3 billion for the Agency – which was $1 billion less than SSA’s funding request – an amount far lower than proposed by both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.
According to Acting Commissioner Dr. Kilolo Kijakazi, this level of funding is far less than SSA needs even to cover basic inflationary costs, let alone provide the level of service Congress and the American people expect from this critical Agency. As a result of the seriously insufficient funding enacted for FY 2022, SSA will be required to delay needed hires, including teleservice center staff, and information technology improvements, and will have less overtime available to help address a potential surge of people returning to field offices for in-person service.
It is not possible to operate a government agency without sufficient funding indefinitely. Like private sector businesses, government agencies need resources to operate, and funding shortfalls inevitably degrade customer service over time. Because funds are concentrated on short-term objectives, sacrifices are often made that affect long-term goals. In SSA’s case, instead of focusing on the types of investments SSA needs to make in order to modernize its systems and improve customer service, SSA has been forced to cannibalize other accounts in order to re-open its field offices safely.
For this reason, we are urging Congress to provide SSA $15.55 billion in funding for FY 2023, which is the amount submitted by the Agency itself to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). We firmly believe SSA is better positioned to anticipate the funding it will need to provide the level of service the American people deserve than OMB staff, though even this level is unlikely to fully make up for the serious and unanticipated level of underfunding confronting SSA in FY 2022.
Adequate funding for SSA is vitally important to your constituents and to our millions of members and supporters across the country who either are receiving Social Security or expect to do so in the future, both to ensure that they receive the benefits they have earned and to maintain the public’s support for this essential program.
Even prior to FY 2022, the Social Security Administration suffered from a serious erosion of funding, which is especially frustrating when one considers that the source of funding for SSA’s operations comes from the Social Security Trust Funds themselves, not general revenue – and that contributions from American workers have built up a $2.9 trillion surplus in these accounts, in addition to about $1 trillion received in Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) contributions each year. From 2010 to 2021, SSA’s operating budget declined by about 13 percent after inflation, while the number of beneficiaries rose by 21 percent, primarily as a result of the growth in new retirement beneficiaries as the baby boom generation reached retirement age. With 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day – and the number of seniors projected to double by 2050 – the need for prioritizing funding that is mindful of the need to safeguard our older Americans now and into the future will continue to grow.
The results of past underfunding have been increasingly apparent and have only been exacerbated by the impacts of the pandemic. The problems with SSA’s outdated phone systems are well-known to the public as callers to the Agency receive busy signals much of the time, are kept on hold for hours and, when they do manage to get through, regularly find that their calls are dropped in mid-conversation. Inadequate funding has also led to staffing shortages, with the agency losing over 7,000 full-time equivalents between 2010 and 2020 and an additional 1,500 since the beginning of the pandemic. Recruiting new employees is becoming increasingly challenging, and the lack of adequate training has resulted in a noticeable reduction in the accuracy of answers callers receive to technical inquiries they submit to SSA when they are finally able to speak to staff. Finally, the backlogs that have developed in both the Disability Determination Services and the Offices of Hearings Operations are persistent and growing, resulting in thousands of applicants dying while waiting for their appeals to receive a hearing.
The Agency and its employees have done an extraordinary job of making the most effective use of the dollars they have been appropriated, however, there is only so far SSA can go without a meaningful infusion of resources. This critical lifeline for millions of Americans must be strengthened. Congress must provide adequate funding for this foundation of support for workers and their families. This funding must begin with an allocation of $15.55 billion for the Agency’s administrative expenses in FY 2023.
While improving SSA’s customer service is not exclusively dependent on money, the simple fact is that adequate funding is essential if the Agency is to restore its ability to fulfill its mission to the American people. While we recognize that Congress has many challenging choices to make with limited resources, the National Committee respectfully asks you to prioritize the programs that help seniors live independent and dignified lives, beginning with the operations of the Social Security Administration. Working Americans earn their Social Security benefits with each and every paycheck, and they expect the Agency that administers their benefits to deliver them effectively and efficiently.
The National Committee urges Congress to fund SSA at a level that will enable the Agency to meet a rapidly growing demand for services. Thank you for your consideration, and we look forward to working with you to ensure sustained investment in programs and agencies crucial to seniors.