BEYOND THE NUMBERS
After Years of Budget Cuts, Increased Funding Would Help Social Security Administration Restore Staff and Improve Customer Service
As Congress works to fund the government for fiscal year 2023, policymakers should significantly increase funding for the Social Security Administration (SSA). In the continuing resolution (CR) that runs until December 16, Congress boosted SSA’s funding for fiscal year 2023. But that level will not be sufficient to maintain current staffing and services in the new year. To improve SSA’s unacceptably long wait times, backlogs, and other problems that the 70 million older adults and people with disabilities who rely on monthly Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits face, Congress needs to increase funding along the lines of the President’s fiscal year 2023 budget request of $1.4 billion more than fiscal year 2022 appropriations.
In the continuing resolution, Congress funded SSA with bipartisan support at $400 million above the fiscal year 2022 level on an annualized basis, giving the agency about an additional $84 million before the CR expires in mid-December. This funding increase — known as an “anomaly” because it provided funding above the level in the previous fiscal year — staved off a hiring freeze and deep cuts to overtime that would have been necessary if the agency had been funded at fiscal year 2022 levels during the first quarter of fiscal year 2023.
However, this increase is not enough to meet SSA’s budget challenges for the full fiscal year. Starting in January 2023, the agency’s fixed costs will jump, reflecting pay and employee benefit increases that kick in. Other fixed costs such as rent and postage are also rising faster than usual due to high inflation. The agency will also need to replace the 6,000 SSA and disability determination service employees it expects to lose in fiscal year 2023, and to continue to rely on overtime to process critical workloads and fill in for staff losses. SSA also needs to maintain its technological infrastructure and protect against security threats. All told, simply maintaining fiscal year 2022 services levels — which were inadequate — would require an $800 million increase in fiscal year 2023.
But simply treading water is not acceptable for the entire year. In 2022, SSA’s customer service was characterized by long waits on the 800 number and for in-person appointments, and record-long processing times for disability decisions — problems caused by more than a decade of underfunding. Recognizing the enormous challenges facing the agency, the President’s budget requested a $1.4 billion increase for fiscal year 2023. This would allow the agency to begin to replace the thousands of staff who departed during the COVID-19 pandemic and modernize its antiquated technological infrastructure, allowing the agency to tackle growing backlogs and reduce long waits for service.
Since 2010, the agency’s workload has expanded dramatically, with the number of Social Security beneficiaries increasing by 11 million, or 21 percent. Its operating budget also shrank 17 percent after taking inflation into account, and its staff by 13 percent. Staffing is now at its lowest level in 25 years; SSA lost 4,000 employees during the pandemic, a 7 percent decline, because budget shortfalls forced it to freeze hiring. And as noted, it also expects to lose nearly 6,000 SSA and disability determination service employees in fiscal year 2023 — employees that SSA won’t be able to replace if it is under another hiring freeze.
Fewer employees combined with higher demand for SSA’s customer service makes it difficult for people to access their Social Security benefits and other services. For example, applicants are waiting over six months for disability decisions with over 1 million cases pending, callers are waiting over 35 minutes on the agency’s 800 number, and beneficiaries are experiencing many other problems. These delays cause significant stress and financial hardship, and backlogs will continue to grow unless policymakers act.
The House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee convened a hearing in May 2022 where leaders of both parties acknowledged the urgency of improving SSA’s customer service. The agency will need a significant funding boost for fiscal year 2023, along the lines of the President’s budget request. Otherwise, Congress should expect another year of record-long waits for disability decisions, lengthy hold times on the agency’s 800 number, growing backlogs, and other problems — creating yet more financial hardship and stress for applicants and beneficiaries.