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Social Security Administration and Budget Cuts: The Struggle to Provide Customer Service

This article was originally published in the Winter 2016-2017 edition of PATimes, Public Service Delivery for Aging Populations.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Max Richtman
June 23, 2017

For the past six years, Social Security Administration (SSA) employees have struggled to meet the growing demand for customer service. On average, Social Security beneficiaries wait on hold for 15 minutes, while one in ten callers get a busy signal. More than 60 field offices across the country have been shuttered, making it harder to get an appointment. Nearly 1 million Americans have waited for more than one year for a hearing on their disability insurance applications. And, the situation is 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. Indeed, SSA’s core operating budget comprises less than one percent of what the agency pays out in Social Security benefits. Instead, look to the U.S. Congress. The 2011 Budget Control Act imposed tight appropriations caps on SSA’s budget, which sequestration aggravated even more. Since 2010, the SSA operating budget has been reduced by 10 percent, when adjusted for inflation. At the same time, the number of Americans filing for Social Security benefits has grown by more than 12 percent during the same period, as Baby Boomers reach retirement age.

In January, SSA suddenly announced it would stop mailing paper statements to anyone under 60 years of age. Only those over 60 who have not filed for benefits and do not have an online “My Social Security” account will continue to find the statements in their mailboxes. It is the second time SSA has stopped the mailings to save money. 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, SSA deputy commissioner of communications, on the agency’s blog site.

In the six years following draconian budget cuts, SSA’s workforce declined by more than 11,000 workers. According to the U.S. 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 percent of its 800 (toll free) number staff.” Further, it reported that SSA 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.”

But, is that not OK since more and more Americans get their customer service online? Not in the case of Social Security. Younger beneficiaries might not mind doing business that way, but some seniors remain unable to get online access; still others feel more comfortable speaking to a live budgethuman being. Their ability to do so has been severely compromised.

“Before the budget cuts, more than 90 percent of applicants could schedule an appointment at an SSA field office within three weeks; by 2015, fewer than half could,” according to a Center for Budget and Policy Priorities report. “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.”

These budget cuts are not fiscally necessary. SSA is funded through Social Security payroll contributions, not the general treasury. This begs the simple question: Why? Why squeeze an agency on which 60 million Americans depend for their benefits after they have contributed their fair share through FICA payroll taxes?

Members of Congress who want to “reform”—some say “privatize”—Social Security are undermining the program. Slashing SSA’s operating budget means that customer service suffers. When customer service suffers, beneficiaries get angry and direct their anger toward SSA. In turn, sufficient customer anger can erode the public’s support for Social Security as critics can point to budget-induced performance issues claim, “See, the government is doing a terrible job managing Social Security. The private sector can do better.” And, thus, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“They appear to be creating a scenario that ensures the collapse of the program,” the American Federation of Government Employees SSA Council President Witold Skwiercyznski told The Washington Post in August 2016. SSA, too, remains concerned 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,” Doug Walker posted on the SSA blog site.

Congress has until April 30, 2017, to pass a spending bill for the full year. This presents an opportunity to reverse the cuts that have hobbled SSA for the past several years. President Obama’s FY2017 budget request allocated $13.067 billion for SSA operations, a badly needed seven percent increase. At this level, the SSA could begin to restore the services it has been forced to cut. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare has supported a healthy boost in SSA funding, a significant challenge given calls to slash spending and cut taxes. For agency employees and Social Security beneficiaries, the result could be more time wasted on hold, more busy signals, longer wait times for an appointment or hearing—and more misdirected anger toward Social Security itself.


Author: Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, one of the nation’s most influential senior advocacy and education membership organizations. A former staff director of the Senate Special Committee on Aging and a 16-year veteran of Capitol Hill, Richtman directed a lengthy investigation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s enforcement of age discrimination statutes and developed legislation to establish a Consumer Price Index [for the] Elderly (CPIE). He can be reached at [email protected]

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