BEYOND THE NUMBERS
The Social Security Administration (SSA) faces a staffing shortage that hurts hard-working Americans trying to access their earned benefits, but a Senate-passed funding bill wouldn’t help — and one that the House Appropriations Committee passed would only make things worse. The House bill would cut SSA’s administrative budget by 2.5 percent compared to last year, and the Senate’s version would provide a paltry 1 percent increase. That’s not even enough to cover inflation — let alone the rising demands on an agency that serves a million more beneficiaries each year due to the retirement of baby boomers. For SSA to provide high-quality service to a growing population, policymakers must boost funding substantially.
Years of SSA cuts have already taken their toll, causing the agency to lose 12 percent of its staff since 2010, close field offices, and shorten office hours, even as it faced record-high workloads. (See chart.) Understaffing has fueled long waits on the phone and in field offices and record-high backlogs of disability appeals.
As workloads and costs have grown — and budgets and staffing shrunk — SSA’s service delivery has worsened. Most callers to SSA’s national 800 number don’t get their questions resolved; as hold times have risen, nearly half of callers hang up before connecting and a growing number get busy signals. Meanwhile, the average wait for a disability appeal has stretched to 20 months. Further cuts would force the agency to freeze hiring, furlough employees, shutter more field offices, or further restrict field office hours, causing yet longer wait times for taxpayers and beneficiaries.
SSA’s extremely tight budgets were driven by the 2011 Budget Control Act’s (BCA) tight annual caps on discretionary spending, and the 2018 Bipartisan Budget Act that temporarily raised the BCA budget caps provided only partial relief. Policymakers increased SSA funding in 2018 — a step in the right direction, but not nearly enough to make up the ground that SSA has lost since 2010. And the agency’s boost last year was mostly dedicated to executing its long-term information technology and backlog reduction plans, not to front-line service. SSA was left with significantly less than what it needed simply to keep up with fixed costs from the year before.
SSA’s administrative budget is one of many priorities funded by the annual appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education, which has faced large cuts since 2010. Congress should provide sufficient funding for all of the essential work funded in that bill, including national priorities such as Pell Grants for low- and moderate-income college students and fighting the opioid epidemic — and SSA’s essential services.