Social Security

Social Security’s Customer Service Budget Finally Got An Increase – But It’s Only a Starting Point

Social Security doesn’t add a penny to the deficit. Neither does the cost of administering the program – the field offices, telephone lines, employee salaries, and other expenses. All of it comes from Social Security’s dedicated revenue and accumulated surplus, which is $2.9 trillion and growing. Congress does have the authority, though, to limit how much the Social Security Administration (SSA) can spend in any given year.

Since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010, they have starved SSA of the funds needed to ensure that the American people can easily access their earned benefits. Adjusted for inflation, SSA’s operating budget is now ten percent lower than it was only six years ago. During the same time period, the number of Social Security beneficiaries has increased by thirteen percent as 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day. And every year, SSA’s costs for field offices and other fixed costs go up by over $300 million.

The results have been predictably disastrous. Forced to do more with less, SSA has closed 64 field offices and lost over 25,000 employees. At the offices that remain open, wait times have steadily increased, with the average visitor being forced to wait over an hour. Hold times on SSA’s 1-800 number have grown so long that half of callers hang up the phone in defeat.

Worst of all, over one million Americans are waiting for a hearing to determine if they are eligible to receive Social Security disability benefits – protections that they earned with every paycheck. The average wait time for a hearing is nearly two years. Thousands of Americans with disabilities have died while waiting for a hearing, and many more have been forced to declare bankruptcy and become homeless.

This is outrageous. Social Security is extremely efficient. It spends less than a penny of every dollar on administrative expenses. The rest is paid in benefits. But even that level of administrative expense is too much for today’s Republicans. In every year since 2013, Congress has allowed SSA to spend only 0.7 percent. It is time to stop starving SSA. It is time to expand Social Security’s modest benefits and it is time to restore and increase SSA’s budget.

For Congressional Republicans, the starving of SSA’s administrative budget has always been about ideology. Social Security is too popular, even among Republican voters, for them to cut benefits in broad daylight. So instead they are undermining the program’s customer service to make it harder for people to access their earned benefits. In the long run, their goal is to erode confidence in the program and dismantle it brick by brick.

This March, Social Security beneficiaries finally got some good news, thanks to Social Security champions, including Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative John Larson (D-CT), together with grassroots activists around the country demanding a change. Due to their commitment and hard work, the recent omnibus funding bill passed by Congress included a $480 million increase in SSA’s funding.

This is an important victory. But it is only the first step. Due to years of underfunding, SSA’s computer systems are extremely outdated and much of this year’s modest funding increase is being used to modernize them. Up to date technology is very important, but so is frontline service.

SSA should be opening new field offices, expanding hours, and increasing services to meet the needs of the growing population of beneficiaries. Instead, they recently shuttered a field office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and have announced that offices in Arlington, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland will soon close their doors.

The omnibus bill that increased SSA’s budget allocation included the language “the agreement is concerned that SSA may be reducing resources for field offices and expects SSA to continue to support frontline operations.” This concern is well merited, but lawmakers need to put their money where their mouth is by giving SSA the resources it needs to provide quality frontline service.

In the next few months, Congress will be considering next year’s budget for SSA. A one-time funding increase is not enough. Our elected representatives must be told to permanently increase SSA’s funding allocation and stop handcuffing the agency.

The upcoming midterm elections provide an opportunity to hold Congress accountable. Every single member of the House of Representatives and one third of Senators are up for reelection this November. For the next seven months, there will be hundreds of campaign events and debates all over the country.

All supporters of Social Security should attend these events and ask all candidates for federal office a simple question: “Will you vote to expand Social Security or cut it?” That includes allowing SSA to spend more of its own revenue to continue to provide the first-class service the American people have purchased and deserve.

For too long Republicans have been able to avoid accountability by talking about “saving” Social Security, failing to recognize that Social Security is a solution, not a problem. We must hold politicians’ feet to the fire. Find out whether they share our values and see the importance of expanding, not cutting, Social Security and its related administrative costs. Then, vote accordingly, and tell your friends and family to do the same.

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Nancy Altman

Nancy J. Altman has a forty year background in the areas of Social Security and private pensions. She is President of Social Security Works and Chair of the Strengthen Social Security coalition and campaign.