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Funding Bills Would Hurt Social Security Customer Service

The full House and the Senate Appropriations Committee have passed woefully inadequate funding plans for operating the Social Security Administration (SSA), which would substantially weaken customer service, hurting seniors and people with disabilities and hampering SSA’s ability to pay benefits promptly and accurately, as our updated report shows. SSA needs adequate resources to serve the public — and it’s very unlikely to receive them unless the White House and Congress reach a bipartisan agreement to reduce sequestration cuts, as they’ve done every year since 2014.

Years of SSA cuts have already taken their toll, generating long waits on the phone and in field offices and record-high disability backlogs. Yet the House would freeze SSA’s operating funds for another year, even as the agency’s costs rise. Even worse, the Senate proposed another $400 million cut, nearly 4 percent of SSA’s operating budget — which would bring the total cut since fiscal year 2010 to 16 percent, after adjusting for inflation (see chart). SSA’s 2018 funding for basic operations needs to rise to keep pace with inflation and the aging of the baby boomers, which increases the number of beneficiaries by about a million each year.

Extremely tight budgets have already forced SSA to make cuts in customer service — closing field offices, shortening field office hours, and shrinking staff. At the same time, SSA has saved money by increasing automation and reducing the number of Social Security statements that it sends to those who pay into Social Security. But these efficiencies can’t make up for the fact that SSA serves 1 million more beneficiaries than it did a year ago. As workloads and costs grow and budgets shrink, SSA’s service has worsened by nearly every metric. Further cuts would force the agency to freeze hiring, furlough employees, shutter more field offices, or further restrict field office hours, fueling yet longer wait times for taxpayers and beneficiaries.

The situation is especially critical for the over 1 million applicants who must wait for a decision on their disability appeals. This record-high hearings backlog has a high human cost. Waiting nearly two years for a final decision, as a typical appellant does, causes financial and medical hardship. Some applicants lose their homes or must declare bankruptcy while waiting. Their health often worsens, and some die.

Though SSA’s 2017 appropriation provided some dedicated funds to reduce the backlog, it was far short of what the agency requested for its multi-year plan to eliminate the backlog. As a result, SSA was forced to rewrite its backlog reduction plan, putting many initiatives on hold and delaying the target date for eliminating the backlog by two years, from 2020 to 2022 — and meeting even that time frame depends on higher funding than the pending appropriations bills have proposed. Without additional funding, Americans in the backlog will suffer and even die while they wait to access their earned benefits — a looming tragedy that policymakers have the power to prevent.