Congress: Stop Squeezing the Social Security Administration

2017-07-10T16:03:07+00:00January 12th, 2017|Social Security|

We have written extensively in this space about cuts to the Social Security Administration budget negatively impacting customer service for beneficiaries.   This week, as Mary Beth Franklin reports in Investment News, the SSA announced that it would stop mailing paper statements to Social Security beneficiaries under 60 “due to serious budget constraints.” Beneficiaries over 60 who do not have an online “My Social Security” account will continue to receive paper statements (for the time being, anyway).

This is the latest in a slew of customer service reductions forced by draconian cuts to the agency’s budget in Congress.  The SSA goes on to say:

“In addition, we have enacted a hiring freeze and dramatically reduced overtime hours that help us process work after assisting customers in our offices and on the phone.”

Anyone who has tried to phone the SSA knows exactly what that means:  more wasted time waiting to talk to a customer service representative, if you reach one at all. In 2016, the average hold time for callers to the SSA’s 800 number was 15 minutes.  Ten percent of all callers got a busy signal. These stats will likely get worse this year.

Ironically, this week’s SSA announcement ends with the cheery affirmation, “Thank you for helping Social Security continue securing today and tomorrow as we rise to this challenge.”  Kudos to the SSA for putting a brave face on an extremely vexing situation.  

As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported last June, the SSA has been struggling to provide proper customer service ever since Congress passed the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which included appropriations caps – further reduced by sequestration.  In fact, the SSA’s core operating budget has shrunk by 10 percent since 2010 (after adjusting for inflation), even as the demands on SSA have reached “all-time highs as the baby boomers have aged into their peak years for retirement and disability.”

These cuts resulted in an SSA hiring freeze, the closure of more than 60 field offices across the country, and lengthy delays in processing Disability Insurance (DI) applications appeals. (Some 1 million applicants are awaiting much-delayed hearings.)  Advocates of budget cuts may claim that beneficiaries can access services online, but the truth is that many seniors can’t get online – or are vastly more comfortable talking to a human being.

To some in Congress, the SSA budget may simply represent figures on a spreadsheet.  But the cuts imposed some 6 years ago continue to harm real people – the 59 million beneficiaries of Social Security who are being denied timely service.  Congress squeezes SSA’s budget even though the agency is funded by Social Security revenue (mostly from workers’ payroll contributions) and not from the general treasury.  Why then, does Congress insist on bleeding what is already one of the most efficient federal agencies?  One explanation is that those on Capitol Hill who are bent on cutting benefits and privatizing Social Security know that forcing customer service cutbacks feeds public frustration, undermining public support for the program in general.

The only responsible solution is to restore much-needed funding for the Social Security Administration – to undo the damage that began in 2011.  The SSA’s administrative budget for FY 2016 was $12.162 billion.  We support President Obama’s FY 2017 budget request of $13.067 billion, 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.  After years of endless hold music, busy signals, shuttered field offices, and unreasonable wait times for hearings, we at the National Committee could finally stop filling this space with bad news for SSA’s customers.  

“In addition, we have enacted a hiring freeze and dramatically reduced overtime hours that help us process work after assisting customers in our offices and on the phone.”

Anyone who has tried to phone the SSA knows exactly what that means:  more wasted time waiting to talk to a customer service representative, if you reach one at all. In 2016, the average hold time for callers to the SSA’s 800 number was 15 minutes.  Ten percent of all callers got a busy signal. These stats will likely get worse this year.

Ironically, this week’s SSA announcement ends with the cheery affirmation, “Thank you for helping Social Security continue securing today and tomorrow as we rise to this challenge.”  Kudos to the SSA for putting a brave face on an extremely vexing situation.  

As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported last June, the SSA has been struggling to provide proper customer service ever since Congress passed the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which included appropriations caps – further reduced by sequestration.  In fact, the SSA’s core operating budget has shrunk by 10 percent since 2010 (after adjusting for inflation), even as the demands on SSA have reached “all-time highs as the baby boomers have aged into their peak years for retirement and disability.”

These cuts resulted in an SSA hiring freeze, the closure of more than 60 field offices across the country, and lengthy delays in processing Disability Insurance (DI) applications appeals. (Some 1 million applicants are awaiting much-delayed hearings.)  Advocates of budget cuts may claim that beneficiaries can access services online, but the truth is that many seniors can’t get online – or are vastly more comfortable talking to a human being.

To some in Congress, the SSA budget may simply represent figures on a spreadsheet.  But the cuts imposed some 6 years ago continue to harm real people – the 59 million beneficiaries of Social Security who are being denied timely service.  Congress squeezes SSA’s budget even though the agency is funded by Social Security revenue (mostly from workers’ payroll contributions) and not from the general treasury.  Why then, does Congress insist on bleeding what is already one of the most efficient federal agencies?  One explanation is that those on Capitol Hill who are bent on cutting benefits and privatizing Social Security know that forcing customer service cutbacks feeds public frustration, undermining public support for the program in general.

The only responsible solution is to restore much-needed funding for the Social Security Administration – to undo the damage that began in 2011.  The SSA’s administrative budget for FY 2016 was $12.162 billion.  We support President Obama’s FY 2017 budget request of $13.067 billion, 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.  After years of endless hold music, busy signals, shuttered field offices, and unreasonable wait times for hearings, we at the National Committee could finally stop filling this space with bad news for SSA’s customers.