Since the Social Security field offices opened their doors over 80 years ago, they were part of every community. Like our post offices and public libraries, Social Security’s more than 1,200 field offices provide us with essential services. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, they were on average 175,000 visitors every day – more than 40 million a year.
That’s why it’s such good news that the Social Security Administration (SSA) just announcement that the field offices will reopen to the public from the end of March. And that is why it is imperative that Congress allow the SSA to spend the necessary funds not only to reopen field offices, but also to expand them.
Americans visit Social Security field offices at times of transition, ones that often involve sadness, vulnerability, and stress – when a loved one dies, when someone faces a severe disability, or when a worker is approaching retirement after a lifetime of work. They come to these offices for clear information and assistance regarding the benefits they have acquired under our social security system, an institution to which they have contributed throughout their working lives.
For decades, Social Security field offices were known for their exceptional customer service. But over the past decade, Republicans in Congress have sabotaged Social Security offices, with disastrous consequences. Between 2010 and 2021, SSA’s operating budget has shrunk by 13% even though the number of beneficiaries increased by 22%. Congress imposed these budget cuts despite Social Security accumulated surplus $2.9 trillion, more than enough to fully fund operating costs without adding even a penny to the federal debt.
These drastic budget cuts have resulted in an inevitable drop in service, despite the best efforts of a dedicated workforce. Between 2010 and 2018, the ASS closed 67 field offices across the country. In other offices, opening hours have been shortened and often staff reduced. People have been forced to wait a year or more for hearings to determine eligibility for Social Security disability benefits, with nearly 110,000 Americans die while waiting for a hearing.
This was the state of Social Security customer service before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the field offices have been closed for almost two years for all but serious emergencies. It was the right thing to do to keep recipients and workers safe, but it made it even harder for Americans to claim their benefits. It also belied the idea that field offices are not important because everything can be done online.
In fact, many Americans do not have access to a computer or simply prefer to claim their benefits in person. And this is not limited to the older generation. Sixty-one percent of Americans say they want to call or visit a local office to claim the benefits they have earned. Those who responded in the highest percentage that they wanted to visit a field office in person? 18 to 29 year olds! Additionally, 86% of Americans want more or at least the same number of local field offices in the future – not less.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of field offices. During the pandemic, claims for disability benefits decreased significantly — presumably due to the difficulty of applying without the valuable in-person assistance provided by field offices. According to this reduction, groundbreaking research found that before the pandemic, closing a field office reduced the number of disability claims by 10% and led to an even greater reduction in disability awards – a whopping 16% reduction.
As field offices reopen, they will almost certainly be faced with a backlog of disability claims from people who were unable to claim their benefits at the height of the pandemic, as well as those suffering from a long COVID . Field offices should also plan for the provision of survivor benefits to the families of pandemic victims. And with all that, 10,000 baby boomers continue to retire every day.
All these factors mean that field offices can expect an even greater workload in the years to come. Congress must ensure that the SSA can handle this increased workload by allowing the agency to spend the funds needed to safely reopen offices and repair the damage done in the decade before the pandemic.
This means opening new offices and hiring additional staff. In 1985, SSA employed 81,000 workers. But now, even though the population has grown and aged, SSA has less than 60,000 workers — a drop of 26%! This needs to change immediately so that the recently reopened field offices have the resources they need to fully serve the community.
Time is money. Americans shouldn’t have to wait hours in a crowded field office or weeks for an appointment. Americans not only deserve first-class service; they bought it. It is important to recognize that the Social Security Administration’s operating budget is funded by the accumulated Social Security surplus of $2.9 trillion. This surplus is the result of the contributions that workers and their employers pay with each paycheque.
It is crucial to understand that Congress does not allocate a penny to the administration of Social Security. Rather, it is a matter of restricting, through an “annual administrative expenditure limit” (AEL), the share of social security equity that the SSA can devote to administration.
There is no valid reason for these constraints imposed by Congress. Social Security has always been run much more efficiently than private sector pension programs and insurance companies. In fact, the system spends less than a penny of every dollar for administration. More than 99 cents of every dollar is returned to working families in the form of retirement, disability and survivor benefits.
The Social Security administrative budget starvation was ideologically driven by Republicans who aimed to undermine trust in and program support — the proverbial death by a thousand little cuts. Now that Democrats control Congress and the White House, they must act quickly to reverse these destructive cuts.
As Democrats negotiate a new package to fund the government after the current continuing resolution expires in weeks, they must ensure the SSA is allowed to spend the funds needed to reopen field offices and expand staffing. If Congress does this, the reopening of field offices will be a moment of triumph for the Biden administration. President BidenJoe BidenRussia moves naval drills over Irish concerns Britain’s Johnson says he’s ordered armed forces to prepare for deployment next week amid Ukrainian tensions Youngkin sparks Democratic backlash in Virginia MORE will go down in history as the president who restored first-class customer service to America’s most popular government program, Social Security.
Nancy Altman is president of Social Security Works.