Social Security Administration Cuts Hurt Every State

With the baby boom generation now squarely in its peak years for retirement and disability, the demands on the Social Security Administration (SSA) are extraordinarily high. Yet Congress has cut SSA’s core operating budget by 17 percent since 2010, after adjusting for inflation.[1] 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 growing backlogs. While the overall effect is a decline in service nationwide, the effects of the cuts vary considerably by state.

  • SSA’s staff shrank by 15 percent nationwide between 2010 and 2021, so there are fewer people to take appointments, answer phones, and process applications for Social Security’s vital retirement, survivors, and disability benefits.[2] As a result, workers and beneficiaries must wait longer to be served. Four states — Alaska, Iowa, Virginia, and West Virginia — and Puerto Rico have each lost more than 25 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 Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). DDS staff shrank by 16 percent nationwide between 2010 and 2021. Eight states — Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Montana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia — each lost over 30 percent of their DDS staff.

SSA primarily serves people who are older or disabled, often at difficult moments in their lives such as the onset of a disability or the death of a spouse. Its clients are diverse and include people with cognitive difficulties 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 reduces errors that SSA staff must fix later. In order to provide good customer service, SSA needs adequate staffing — which requires an increase in funding.

Adequate Staffing Needed to Provide Good Customer Service

About three-fourths of SSA’s operating budget goes for 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 serve tens of millions of Americans every year. Its national toll-free telephone number serves as the gateway to the agency’s services, fielding 31 million calls in 2021.[3] Here, trained agents provide services such as answering questions about SSA’s programs, taking claims for retirement benefits, and setting up appointments.

SSA also maintains a network of over 1,200 field offices across the country. Field office staff served 43 million applicants and beneficiaries in 2019, before SSA closed the office to in-person service due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and are again serving the public in person this year. Field office 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 beneficiaries are capable of managing their own finances. In addition, they 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).

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 SSDI 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 SSDI or SSI benefits.[4]

Budget cuts have forced SSA to shrink its staff. As a result, SSA staffing is at its lowest level in 25 years, and the agency is currently under a hiring freeze because of insufficient funding.[5] SSA lost roughly 11,000 employees between 2010 and 2021 and expects to lose another 4,500 front-line employees this year.[6] State DDSs lost roughly 2,500 employees between 2010 and 2021 and attrition over the past year is over 25 percent.[7] Inevitably, understaffing means that beneficiaries must wait longer to be served. The average processing time for an initial disability claim had held fairly steady in recent years at three to four months, but has been rising and reached over six months in April 2022.[8] One million applicants awaited a decision on their disability benefit applications as of April 1, 2022.[9]

SSA and DDS staff losses are spread unevenly across the nation, as Figures 1 and 2 and Appendix Table 1 show. While SSA’s staff nationwide shrank by 15 percent between 2010 and 2021, the declines in Alaska, Iowa, Puerto Rico, Virginia, and West Virginia each exceeded 25 percent. Similarly, DDS staff nationwide shrank by 16 percent over that period, but Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Montana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia each lost more than 30 percent.

Figure 1
Figure 2
APPENDIX TABLE 1
Social Security and Disability Staff Changes by State
  Social Security Administration Staff Disability Determination Services Staff
  FY 2010 FY 2021 % Change FY 2010 FY 2021 % Change
Alabama 2,713 2514 -7% 365 362 -1%
Alaska 76 38 -50% 23 25 9%
American Samoa 5 5 0% N/A N/A N/A
Arizona 706 679 -4% 223 220 -1%
Arkansas 534 437 -18% 404 543 34%
California 6,991 5892 -16% 1,440 1287 -11%
Colorado 705 658 -7% 117 157 34%
Connecticut 403 332 -18% 114 114 0%
Delaware 110 102 -7% 41 37 -10%
Dist. of Columbia 239 202 -15% 49 57 16%
Florida 2,753 2601 -6% 1,045 852 -18%
Georgia 1,777 1604 -10% 523 354 -32%
Guam 13 16 23% N/A N/A N/A
Hawai’i 135 123 -9% 42 42 0%
Idaho 149 140 -6% 63 61 -3%
Illinois 3,422 2725 -20% 515 333 -35%
Indiana 925 717 -22% 328 260 -21%
Iowa 343 243 -29% 129 155 20%
Kansas 333 256 -23% 104 53 -49%
Kentucky 825 703 -15% 424 315 -26%
Louisiana 799 611 -24% 287 233 -19%
Maine 209 167 -20% 58 52 -10%
Maryland 12,749 10173 -20% 232 163 -30%
Massachusetts 1,200 1020 -15% 250 218 -13%
Michigan 1,543 1275 -17% 594 542 -9%
Minnesota 493 411 -17% 182 167 -8%
Mississippi 639 522 -18% 320 225 -30%
Missouri 2,784 2511 -10% 361 332 -8%
Montana 125 113 -10% 46 29 -37%
Nebraska 182 151 -17% 77 67 -13%
Nevada 265 264 0% 95 100 5%
New Hampshire 151 132 -13% 51 49 -4%
New Jersey 905 799 -12% 298 306 3%
New Mexico 961 801 -17% 86 103 20%
New York 4,099 3619 -12% 934 711 -24%
North Carolina 1,328 1309 -1% 679 555 -18%
North Dakota 95 88 -7% 22 20 -9%
Ohio 1,794 1385 -23% 589 501 -15%
Oklahoma 563 462 -18% 308 333 8%
Oregon 428 387 -10% 195 166 -15%
Pennsylvania 4,510 3918 -13% 704 658 -7%
Puerto Rico * 328   142 108 -24%
Rhode Island 166 148 -11% 47 53 13%
Northern Mariana Islands 6 5 -17% N/A N/A N/A
South Carolina 661 605 -8% 403 239 -41%
South Dakota 94 87 -7% 33 32 -3%
Tennessee 1,073 934 -13% 533 335 -37%
Texas 3,477 3279 -6% 1,034 618 -40%
Utah 176 176 0% 73 72 -1%
Vermont 62 53 -15% 34 38 12%
Virgin Islands 12 11 -8% N/A N/A N/A
Virginia 2,193 1616 -26% 447 426 -5%
Washington 1,627 1264 -22% 318 297 -7%
West Virginia 454 303 -33% 227 153 -33%
Wisconsin 724 553 -24% 233 201 -14%
Wyoming 44 40 -9% 15 15 0%
Total 70,202* 59,507 -15% 15,856 13,344 -16%

* Total includes nine staff with no state or territory identified.

Notes: 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. DDS operations for American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands are run out of the San Francisco Regional Office. DDS operations for the Virgin Islands are run out of the New York Regional Office.

Source: Social Security Administration

End Notes

[1] Kathleen Romig, “Policymakers Must Act to Address Social Security Service Crisis,” CBPP, May 26, 2022, https://www.cbpp.org/blog/policymakers-must-act-to-address-social-security-service-crisis

[2] The numbers of staff in this report refer to full-time permanent staff on duty. SSA has other ways of measuring its workforce, including full-time-equivalent staff and work years, which we cite in other contexts, which also show significant declines. For instance, full-time-equivalent staff shrank by13 percent between 2010 and 2021.

[3] Social Security Administration, Fiscal Year 2021 Agency Financial Report, https://www.ssa.gov/finance/2021/Full%20FY%202021%20AFR.pdf.

[4] For Social Security and SSI, disability is defined as the inability to earn above the substantial gainful activity threshold ($1,350 per month in 2022) because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) that can be expected to result in death or last at least 12 months.

[5] Grace Kim, SSA, Statement for the Record, House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, May 17, 2022, https://waysandmeans.house.gov/sites/democrats.waysandmeans.house.gov/files/documents/Kim%20Testimony.pdf.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] SSA, “Social Security Administration (SSA) Monthly Data for Combined Title II Disability & Title XVI Blind & Disabled Average Processing Time,” https://www.ssa.gov/open/data/Combined-Disability-Processing-Time.html. SSA, Office of Inspector General, “Comparing the Social Security Administration’s Disability Determination Services’ Workload Statistics During the COVID-19 Pandemic to Prior Years,” December 2021, https://www.oversight.gov/sites/default/files/oig-reports/SSA/01-21-51038.pdf.

[9] Faigy Gilder, “A Grim Milestone: More Than One Million Pending Disability Cases,” National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, April 1, 2022, https://nosscr.org/a-grim-milestone-more-than-one-million-pending-disability-cases/.