Senior Policy Analyst
This summer’s budget deal between President Trump and congressional leaders offers enough total discretionary dollars to give the Social Security Administration (SSA) a much-needed funding boost in 2020, but the Senate majority plans to cut $2.7 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars from the appropriations bill that funds SSA operations. That bill, in turn, would reduce SSA funding by more than 2 percent in inflation-adjusted terms. The companion House bill would slightly increase SSA funding, but by barely enough to offset inflation in 2020 — and not nearly enough to offset years of underfunding before then. For SSA to provide high-quality service to a growing population, policymakers must boost funding substantially.
SSA’s years of cuts have taken their toll. From 2010 to 2019, its operating budget fell nearly 11 percent in inflation-adjusted terms — even as the number of Social Security beneficiaries grew by 17 percent. (See chart.) As a result, SSA has lost 12 percent of its staff since 2010, hampering its 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.
As workloads and costs have grown — and budgets and staffing have shrunk — SSA’s service delivery has worsened:
SSA’s extremely tight budgets have been driven by two factors: (1) the 2011 Budget Control Act’s tight annual caps on total discretionary funding, and (2) policymakers’ failure to give SSA its fair share of funding increases from past budget deals that raised those caps on a temporary basis. For example, the budget deal for 2018 provided a 9 percent increase in non-defense discretionary (NDD) funding from the previous year in inflation-adjusted terms, but SSA’s budget rose only 2 percent. NDD spending rose nearly 1 percent in inflation-adjusted terms in 2019, but policymakers cut SSA’s budget by almost 2 percent, which helped convince SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul to impose a partial hiring freeze.
Annual funding bills for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, which also include SSA’s administrative budget, have faced large cuts since 2010. The President and Congress should provide sufficient funding in the final 2020 appropriations bill to cover SSA’s essential services.