If You Can’t Cut Benefits: Cutting the Agency that Distributes Them Is the Next Best Thing
At least that appears to be Congress’ approach on Social Security. Each year, conservatives in Congress propose budgets for the Social Security Administration far below what’s needed to do its job, and far below what the SSA or the President requested from Congress. The effect of that is being felt by American beneficiaries nationwide and has now gotten even worse.
The latest news is that beginning on November 19th, the SSA will close field offices 30 minutes earlier. And starting in January, field offices will close at noon on Wednesdays. This is in addition to the 30 minute cut in operating hours announced just last year. In addition, the mailings of annual statements—which are the SSA’s most effective form of communication sent directly to beneficiaries about their earnings and benefits– will be cut off completely effective October 1st. It’s now up to each beneficiary to go to the SSA’s website to get that information.
Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times correctly points out the problem with that strategy:
But is that an adequate substitute? No way. For one thing, you have to know that your statement is available via the Internet, you have to know where to find it, and you have to be able to navigate a registration procedure that is not all that user-friendly — especially for someone not familiar with navigating the Web, and double-especially for someone without easy access to a computer. Despite a claim that we all live in the digital world today, those are not small groups.
Importantly, the Social Security Administration has made no discernible effort to proactively advise Americans that the paper statements are a thing of the past. In other words, what was once its most effective outreach to millions of people has disappeared without a trace, or a single word of warning.
Social Security says that if you have problems accessing the online service, you can get help at a Social Security office. Of course, those offices, which used to be open until 4 p.m., are now open only till 3:30. Starting in mid-November, they’ll only be open till 3. And starting Jan. 2, they’ll be closing at noon Wednesdays.
“There’s already an enormous amount of unhappiness for people who walk to their Social Security office and find a sign saying, ‘We closed at 3:30,'” says Webster Phillips, a former Social Security associate commissioner who now works with the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
Shorter hours, shrinking budgets to manage more beneficiaries, and limited communication with that growing constituency—this is not sound policy. But for conservatives who’ve long promised to allow middle-class programs to “wither on the vine” or shrink small enough “to drown in a bathtub” it is politics as usual. Unfortunately, generations of Americans will ultimately pay the price.