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Social Security Administration Cuts Hurt Every State

September 12, 2016

As the baby boom generation ages into its peak years for retirement and disability, the demands on the Social Security Administration (SSA) are reaching all-time highs.  Yet Congress has cut SSA’s core operating budget by 10 percent since 2010, after adjusting for inflation. [2]  These cuts hurt SSA’s service to the public in every state.  The agency has been forced to shutter field offices and shrink its staff, leading to longer waits for service and a record-high disability appeals backlog.The agency has been forced to shutter field offices and shrink its staff, leading to longer waits for service and a record-high disability appeals backlog.  While the overall effect is a decline in service nationwide, the effects of the cuts vary considerably by state.

  • SSA’s staff has shrunk 6 percent nationwide since 2010, so there are fewer people to take appointments, answer phones, and process applications for Social Security’s vital retirement, survivors, and disability benefits.  As a result, workers and beneficiaries must wait longer to be served.  Five states — Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and West Virginia — have lost more than 15 percent of their staff since 2010.
  • In addition to its own staff, SSA funds state Disability Determination Service (DDS) employees, who decide whether applicants’ disabilities are severe enough to qualify for Disability Insurance (DI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).  DDS staff has shrunk 14 percent nationwide since 2010.  Seven states — Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas — have lost over 20 percent of their DDS staff.
  • Staff shortages have contributed to a record-high disability hearing backlog of over 1 million applicants.  In seven states — Arizona, Hawaii, New Jersey, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin — plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, the number of people awaiting a decision on their appeal has more than doubled since 2010, and in three of those, it has more than tripled.  In three states — Delaware, Maryland, and North Carolina — plus the District of Columbia, the average processing time for an appeal is over 21 months.  These long waits cause medical and financial hardship.
  • SSA has been forced to close 64 field offices since 2010, at least one in nearly every state. Shuttering field offices reduces access to essential services, particularly in rural areas.  New York alone has shuttered 12 field offices, while Pennsylvania has closed half a dozen.

Staff Attrition Causes Service to Decline in Every State

Almost all SSA’s operating budget is spent on staff, and the majority of SSA’s staff provide direct service to the public.  As a result, funding cuts unavoidably result in service gaps.  Tight budgets have forced SSA to cut staff by attrition, which results in uneven patterns across the country.

SSA’s front-line staff serves tens of millions of Americans every year.  Its national toll-free telephone number serves as the gateway to the agency’s services, fielding 37 million calls in 2015. [3]  Here, trained agents provide services such as answering questions about SSA’s programs, taking claims for retirement benefits, and setting up appointments.  The agency’s field office staff assisted 41 million visitors in 2015, performing tasks like taking applications for benefits, processing name changes, and replacing lost Social Security cards.[4] 

SSA’s behind-the-scenes work is equally important for ensuring prompt and accurate service. SSA’s payment service centers handle tasks such as awarding widows’ benefits when their spouses die, issuing back payments for DI beneficiaries who waited a year or more for a hearing, and resolving complex claims issues.  SSA also funds state DDS employees, who decide whether applicants’ disabilities are severe enough to qualify for DI or SSI benefits.

Budget cuts have forced SSA to freeze hiring.  As a result, since 2010, SSA has lost 5,000 employees, while state DDSs have lost 2,000.  Inevitably, this means that beneficiaries must wait longer to be served.  On the toll-free number, hold times and busy rates are up.  In the field, SSA cut back on office hours — and since staff must serve nearly the same number of visitors in fewer hours and with fewer staff, applicants wait weeks for appointments, and walk-in visitors often wait hours.

SSA and DDS staff losses are spread unevenly across the nation, as Figures 1 and 2 and Appendix Table 1 show.  Nationwide, SSA’s staff has shrunk by 6 percent since 2010, but five states — Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and West Virginia — have lost more than 15 percent.  Similarly, DDS staff has shrunk 14 percent nationwide since 2010, but seven states — Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas — have lost over 20 percent.

 

Figure 1
Social Security Administration Staff Loss Is Significant

 

Figure 2
Social Security's Disability Determination Services Staff Loss Is Significant

 

Backlog in Disability Hearings Hurts Applicants All Over the Country

SSA pays disability benefits through the DI and SSI programs to workers with impairments severe enough that they can’t support themselves and their families.[5]  The average processing time for an initial disability claim has held fairly steady in recent years at three to four months.  If denied applicants appeal, they typically wait at least another year before an administrative law judge decides their case.  SSA denied record numbers of disability applicants during the Great Recession, and hearing requests rose nearly 50 percent.[6]  But instead of providing additional resources for these record-high hearing requests, Congress cut SSA’s operating budget.

The backlog of pending cases, which was shrinking before the funding cuts, has grown by over 50 percent since 2010, topping 1 million in 2015.[7]  Rising workloads combined with funding cuts caused the hearings backlogs to mount. [8]  Even as the annual number of beneficiaries appealing their decisions is returning to pre-recession levels, huge backlogs from those peak years remain.  Meanwhile, the average wait for a final decision rose from 360 days to 540 between 2011 and 2016. 

The hearings backlog has a high human cost.  Waiting a year and a half for a final decision, as a typical appellant does, causes financial and medical hardship.  Some applicants lose their homes or must declare bankruptcy while awaiting a hearing.  Their health often worsens; some even die.[9]  The longer that applicants wait for a final decision from SSA, the weaker their connections to the workforce become — which makes it harder to find work when they finally get an answer, whether or not they ultimately receive benefits. 

In seven states — Arizona, Hawaii, New Jersey, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin — plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, the number of people awaiting a decision on their appeal has more than doubled since 2010, and in three of those, it has more than tripled.    In three states — Delaware, Maryland, and North Carolina — plus the District of Columbia, the average processing time for an appeal is over 21 months. (See Figure 3 and Appendix Table 2.)

 

Figure 3
Many Disabled Workers Wait Over a Year to Start Receiving Disability Benefits

 

Field Office Closures Hurt Communities Nationwide

SSA provides face-to-face service at its network of field offices.  There, staff take claims for Social Security and SSI benefits, provide replacement Social Security cards, and process name changes.  They offer personalized information for applicants navigating complex decisions about when to retire, and make decisions about whether a beneficiary is capable of managing his or her own finances.  Their assistance is not limited to SSA’s programs.  They also enroll beneficiaries in Medicare and its Extra Help program for low-income beneficiaries, and help beneficiaries apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps).  In addition to field offices, SSA until recently hosted hundreds of mobile offices, which offered part-time service in other government offices.  These mobile offices helped residents of remote areas access SSA services.

Since Congress began cutting SSA’s operating budget in 2010, the agency has closed 64 field offices, along with 533 — almost all — of the agency’s mobile offices.  Shuttering field offices reduces access to essential services, particularly in rural areas.  New York alone has shuttered 12 field offices, while Pennsylvania has closed half a dozen, as Appendix Table 3 shows.

Closing field offices has consequences.  For example, when a field office closes, fewer people in the area apply for disability benefits — including many whose disabilities meet SSA’s strict criteria, according to recent research.[10]

SSA will always need to provide high-quality service in the field.  Although straightforward requests can be handled online or by phone, more complex cases often require face-to-face help.  SSA primarily serves Americans who are elderly or disabled, often at traumatic moments in their lives such as the onset of a disability or the death of a spouse.  Its clients are diverse and include people suffering from severe mental impairments and people with limited ability to speak English.  Its staff provide critical guidance to workers making complex, life-altering decisions.  Providing prompt and thorough service in the field reduces errors that SSA staff must fix later.

Appendix TABLE 1
Social Security and Disability Staff Changes by State
  Social Security Administration Staff Disability Determination Services Staff
  FY 2010 FY 2015 % Change FY 2010 FY 2015 % Change
Alabama 2,713 2,576 -5% 365 365 0%
Alaska 76 55 -28% 23 20 -13%
Arizona 706 713 1% 223 200 -10%
Arkansas 534 480 -10% 404 395 -2%
California 6,991 6,559 -6% 1,440 1,293 -10%
Colorado 705 728 3% 117 119 2%
Connecticut 403 363 -10% 114 114 0%
Delaware 110 108 -2% 41 48 17%
Dist. of Columbia 239 202 -15% 49 49 0%
Florida 2,753 2,748 0% 1,045 942 -10%
Georgia 1,777 1,767 -1% 523 434 -17%
Hawaii 135 138 2% 42 37 -12%
Idaho 149 147 -1% 63 68 8%
Illinois 3,422 3,113 -9% 515 413 -20%
Indiana 925 821 -11% 328 248 -24%
Iowa 343 283 -17% 129 135 5%
Kansas 333 279 -16% 104 78 -25%
Kentucky 825 782 -5% 424 373 -12%
Louisiana 799 706 -12% 287 228 -21%
Maine 209 192 -8% 58 49 -16%
Maryland 12,749 11,362 -11% 232 213 -8%
Massachusetts 1,200 1,125 -6% 250 255 2%
Michigan 1,543 1,391 -10% 594 518 -13%
Minnesota 493 449 -9% 182 157 -14%
Mississippi 639 586 -8% 320 252 -21%
Missouri 2,784 2,734 -2% 361 338 -6%
Montana 125 121 -3% 46 41 -11%
Nebraska 182 153 -16% 77 75 -3%
Nevada 265 272 3% 95 86 -9%
New Hampshire 151 143 -5% 51 43 -16%
New Jersey 905 908 0% 298 289 -3%
New Mexico 961 927 -4% 86 77 -10%
New York 4,099 3,841 -6% 934 776 -17%
North Carolina 1,328 1,395 5% 679 603 -11%
North Dakota 95 87 -8% 22 21 -5%
Ohio 1,794 1,597 -11% 589 497 -16%
Oklahoma 563 512 -9% 308 296 -4%
Oregon 428 412 -4% 195 172 -12%
Pennsylvania 4,510 4,155 -8% 704 588 -16%
Puerto Rico * * * 142 115 -19%
Rhode Island 166 161 -3% 47 45 -4%
South Carolina 661 653 -1% 403 367 -9%
South Dakota 94 83 -12% 33 26 -21%
Tennessee 1,073 1,086 1% 533 398 -25%
Texas 3,477 3,323 -4% 1,034 766 -26%
Utah 176 171 -3% 73 71 -3%
Vermont 62 58 -6% 34 33 -3%
Virginia 2,193 2,056 -6% 447 414 -7%
Washington 1,627 1,632 0% 318 285 -10%
West Virginia 454 377 -17% 227 190 -16%
Wisconsin 724 648 -10% 233 236 1%
Wyoming 44 45 2% 15 16 7%
Total 70,202 65,696 -6% 15,856 13,867 -13%

* Not available  

Note: In states with Extended Service Teams (EST) that assist Disability Determination Services (DDS) in processing disability applications, both EST and DDS staff are included in totals.

Source: Social Security Administration

 

APPENDIX TABLE 2
Disability Insurance Hearing Backlogs by State
  Eligibility Hearing Backlogs  
  FY 2010 FY 2016 % Change Average Hearing
Processing Time,
2016 (days)
Alabama 31,505 37,267 18% 514
Alaska 899 780 -13% 473
Arizona 9,053 19,184 112% 538
Arkansas 8,613 11,885 38% 391
California 58,752 95,695 63% 553
Colorado 10,673 14,401 35% 514
Connecticut 6,539 7,324 12% 523
Delaware 1,552 3,092 99% 645
Dist. of Columbia 3,300 7,264 120% 669
Florida 42,642 79,462 86% 611
Georgia 23,613 40,105 70% 601
Hawaii 574 1,786 211% 436
Idaho N.A. N.A. N.A. N.A.
Illinois 23,684 31,654 34% 542
Indiana 14,545 26,729 84% 514
Iowa 3,169 5,915 87% 528
Kansas 5,581 9,352 68% 492
Kentucky 13,349 21,887 64% 521
Louisiana 14,664 21,452 46% 410
Maine 3,550 2,560 -28% 521
Maryland 6,048 8,909 47% 659
Massachusetts 10,217 12,024 18% 455
Michigan 28,472 41,466 46% 498
Minnesota 8,857 12,216 38% 411
Mississippi 13,916 19,020 37% 532
Missouri 21,689 30,409 40% 530
Montana 3,926 5,271 34% 472
Nebraska 2,587 4,476 73% 505
Nevada 2,588 6,146 137% 488
New Hampshire 4,133 3,363 -19% 433
New Jersey 9,498 29,197 207% 618
New Mexico 6,320 5,799 -8% 554
New York 46,144 80,362 74% 619
North Carolina 20,031 44,749 123% 649
North Dakota 2,805 3,772 34% 441
Ohio 30,895 42,593 38% 507
Oklahoma 12,436 13,993 13% 456
Oregon 9,162 16,259 77% 530
Pennsylvania 41,937 65,047 55% 582
Puerto Rico 2,970 11,739 295% 621
Rhode Island 3,589 2,843 -21% 387
South Carolina 12,969 27,991 116% 610
South Dakota N.A. N.A. N.A. N.A.
Tennessee 25,744 39,379 53% 513
Texas 29,175 52,911 81% 489
Utah 4,757 5,834 23% 542
Vermont N.A. N.A. N.A. N.A.
Virginia 13,857 22,688 64% 533
Washington 12,862 17,881 39% 522
West Virginia 12,075 17,707 47% 579
Wisconsin 7,451 17,002 128% 566
Wyoming 31,505 N.A. 18% N.A.
Total 705,367 1,121,267 59% *

* Not available

Note:  States marked N.A. do not have any Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) offices.  For states with multiple ODAR offices, average processing time shown is the average of processing times for each individual office.

Source: Social Security Administration  

 

APPENDIX TABLE 3
Social Security Field Office Closures Since
FY 2010
  Number of Offices Closed
Alabama -
Alaska 1
Arizona -
Arkansas 1
California 3
Colorado -
Connecticut 2
Delaware -
Dist. of Columbia 1
Florida 3
Georgia 2
Hawaii -
Idaho -
Illinois 1
Indiana -
Iowa 1
Kansas 1
Kentucky 1
Louisiana 3
Maine 1
Maryland -
Massachusetts 2
Michigan 1
Minnesota -
Mississippi 1
Missouri 1
Montana -
Nebraska 1
Nevada -
New Hampshire -
New Jersey 2
New Mexico -
New York 12
North Carolina 1
North Dakota 1
Ohio 1
Oklahoma 1
Oregon 2
Pennsylvania 6
Puerto Rico 3
Rhode Island -
South Carolina 1
South Dakota -
Tennessee 2
Texas 3
Utah -
Vermont -
Virginia 1
Washington 1
West Virginia -
Wisconsin -
Wyoming -
Total 64

Source: Social Security Administration

End Notes

[1] Emily Horton contributed to this report.

[2] Kathleen Romig, “Budget Cuts Squeeze Social Security Administration Even as Workloads Reach Record Highs,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, June 3, 2016, http://www.cbpp.org/research/retirement-security/budget-cuts-squeeze-social-security-administration-even-as-workloads.

[3]  Social Security Administration, Fiscal Year 2015 Agency Financial Report, https://www.ssa.gov/finance/2015/Full%20FY%202015%20AFR.pdf.

[4] Social Security Administration, Annual Performance Report, 2015-2017, https://www.ssa.gov/agency/performance/2016/FINAL_2015_2017_APR_508_compliant.pdf.   

[5] For Social Security and SSI, disability is defined as the inability to earn above the substantial gainful activity (SGA) threshold ($1,130 per month in 2016) because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death or last at least 12 months.

[6] Social Security Administration, Annual Statistical Supplement, Table 2.F9, 2008 and 2012.

[7] Social Security Administration, Annual Statistical Supplement, Table 2.F9, 2011-2015; SSA Budget Overview, February 2016, https://www.ssa.gov/budget/FY17Files/2017BO.pdf.

[8] In addition to funding constraints, inefficiencies in the Administrative Law Judge hiring process have hampered SSA’s ability to fill vacancies.  (See Statement of Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Before the House Appropriations Committee, Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, February 26, 2015, https://www.ssa.gov/legislation/testimony_022615.html.)  However, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 addressed the hiring problem, and the Office of Personnel Management is working to implement the improvements.

[9] Kathy Ruffing, “No Surprise: Disability Beneficiaries Experience High Death Rates,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, April 4, 2013, http://www.cbpp.org/blog/no-surprise-disability-beneficiaries-experience-high-death-rates.

[10] Manasi Deshpande and Yue Li, “Who Are We Screening Out? Application Costs and the Targeting of Disability Programs,” 4th Annual Meeting of the Disability Research Consortium, August 3, 2016, http://www.nber.org/aging/drc/20160803drcmeeting/Panel%202.2%20Deshpande.pdf