For the past six years, employees of the Social Security Administration (SSA) have been struggling to meet a growing demand for customer service. Social Security beneficiaries wait on hold for an average 15 minutes, if not longer. One in 10 callers get a busy signal and have to hang up and call back another time. More than 60 field offices around the country have been shuttered, making it harder to get an appointment. Nearly one million Americans have been waiting for more than a year for a hearing on their Disability Insurance applications. And it’s only getting worse.
None of this is the fault of the agency’s employees. In fact, SSA has one of the most efficient workforces in the federal government. (The SSA’s core operating budget is less than 1% of what the agency pays out in Social Security benefits.) Instead, the blame can be squarely placed at the feet of the U.S. Congress. The 2011 Budget Control Act imposed tight appropriations caps – aggravated by sequestration – on the SSA’s operating budget. Since 2010, the SSA’s core operating budget has been reduced by 10% (when adjusted for inflation). Meanwhile, the number of Americans filing for Social Security benefits has grown by more than 12% during the same period, as baby boomers reach retirement age.
In January, the SSA suddenly announced that it would stop mailing paper statements to anyone under 60. Only those over 60 who have not filed for benefits and do not have an online “My Social Security” account will continue to find paper statements in their mailboxes. It’s the second time that the SSA has had to stop mailing statements in order to save money. And it is only the latest in a series of cutbacks that employees and customers have endured.
“We know that our cutbacks will affect many of you, but we have no choice,” wrote Doug Walker, Deputy Commissioner of Communications for the Social Security Administration, on the agency’s blog site as the latest service reduction was announced.
In the six years following draconian budget cuts, the SSA’s workforce was reduced by more than 11,000 workers. According to the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging, hiring freezes resulted in “disproportionate staffing across the SSA’s 1,245 field offices, with some offices losing a quarter of their staff… In three years the SSA lost more than 15% of it’s 800 (toll free) number staff.”
The SSA had little choice but to curtail customer service, especially at its field offices.
The Committee on Aging reports that the Social Security Administration was compelled to reduce or completely cut several in-person services “as it attempts to keep up with rising workloads and shift seniors and others online to conduct their business.”
Isn’t that okay since more and more Americans are getting customer service online? Not in the case of Social Security. Younger beneficiaries might not mind doing business online, but some seniors are still unable to get online access and often feel more comfortable speaking to a live human being in person or on the phone. Their ability to do so has been severely compromised. “Before the budget cuts, more than 90% of applicants could schedule an appointment at an SSA field office within three weeks; By 2015, fewer than half could,” says a recent report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
The report continues, “The cuts have hampered SSA’s ability to perform its essential services, such as determining eligibility in a timely manner for retirement, survivor, and disability benefits, paying benefits accurately and on time, responding to questions from the public, and updating benefits promptly when circumstances change.”
The budget cuts the SSA has suffered are not even fiscally necessary. The Social Security Administration is funded through Social Security payroll contributions – not the general treasury. This begs the question – why? Why squeeze an agency that 60 million Americans depend on for their Social Security benefits after those working people have contributed their fair share through FICA payroll taxes?
Members of Congress who want to “reform” (which really means “privatize”) Social Security are undermining the program. By slashing the SSA’s operating budget, Social Security privatizers ensure that customer service suffers. When customer service suffers, beneficiaries get angry – and direct that anger toward the Social Security Administration. Sufficient customer anger can erode the public’s support for Social Security. Privatizers can point to the budget-induced performance issues at the SSA and say, in essence, “See, the government is doing a terrible job managing Social Security. The private sector can do better.” By slashing the SSA budget, privatizers in Congress create their own self-fulfilling prophecy.
“They appear to be creating a scenario that insures the collapse of the program,” the President of the American Federation of Government Employees SSA Council, Witold Skwiercyznski, told the Washington Post last August.
SSA’s leadership does not seem optimistic about future funding. “While we can’t predict our budget level for the rest of the fiscal year, we think there may be more bumps in our journey together,” said Doug Walker on the SSA blog site.
Congress has until the end of April to pass a spending bill for the full year. This presents an opportunity to reverse the funding cuts that have hobbled the Social Security Administration these past six years. The SSA’s administrative budget for FY 2016 was $12.162 billion. President Obama’s FY 2017 budget request allocates $13.067 billion for SSA operations, a badly needed 7% increase. At this level of funding, the SSA could begin to restore the customer services it has been forced to cut. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare endorses a healthy boost in SSA funding in our 2017 Legislative Agenda. However, a Congress bent on slashing spending and cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy is unlikely to increase the SSA’s budget. Unfortunately for the agency’s employees and Social Security beneficiaries across the country, that means more time wasted on hold, more busy signals, longer wait times for an appointment or hearing – and more misdirected anger toward Social Security itself.
Max Richtman is President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare