(The views expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
CHICAGO, June 24 (Reuters) – Our Social Security concerns often center on the program’s solvency problems, which threaten its benefits if left unsolved. But right now we face a more immediate challenge: how to fund the Social Security Administration (SSA) as it climbs out of the COVID-19 crisis so it can serve the public efficiently and equitably.
Social Security’s customer service department has suffered from more than a decade of budget cuts imposed by Congress, and its operating budget fell 13% from 2010 to 2021, adjusted for inflation. Over the same period, the number of Social Security beneficiaries grew by 22%, data from the SSA shows.
The cuts have damaged the agency’s ability to serve the public, and some of the problems have been exacerbated during the pandemic. The SSA closed its sprawling national network of more than 1,200 offices in March 2020 to protect the public and its employees from the coronavirus. The offices had 43 million visitors in 2019 and the agency has since provided most of its services through its website bit.ly/2SEeJpC and the toll-free number (1-800-772-1213).
The challenge now is not just to get SSA’s customer service back on track, but also to address inequalities in how the pandemic has affected beneficiaries.
President Joe Biden’s 2022 budget proposes a 10% increase in the agency’s funding, and Commissioner Andrew Saul has recommended a 12% increase. That expenditure has nothing to do with the problems of the pension and disability funds, which pay the benefits and are expected to run out of money by 2034 (reut.rs/3xylGY5). At that point, Social Security would have enough revenue from current tax payments to cover about 80% of the promised benefits — a disaster that must be prevented by injecting new revenue.
The administrative budget, meanwhile, funds the SSA field offices, free operation, website, and other core functions. And the proposed increases for next year would be no more than a down payment on what is actually needed.
Routine matters, such as applying for retirement benefits and Medicare, went smoothly during the shutdown. But the number of claims for disability benefits plummeted over the past year at a time when the number of people who qualified for – and needed – for benefits is likely to rise. There has also been a sharp drop in applications for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a benefit program for people on low incomes, the disabled or the elderly.
The closing of the field office is the likely culprit. Research has shown nyti.ms/2SOTHos that field office employees provide critical personal assistance with complex cases, especially with disability insurance and SSI (nyti.ms/2SOTHos) applications.
“The closing of the field offices has really hit people unjustly,” said Kathleen Romig, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Younger and wealthier people with more stability in their lives can navigate the online system quite well, but people who are not tech savvy, or have precarious housing situations or limited English skills or disabilities really need personal help.”
SSI is a critical source of income for black, Hispanic, and Asian-American seniors and low-income disabled people. According to SSA data, 40% of SSI recipients age 75 or older are African American or Hispanic and 18% Asian American.
REDEFINING THE PROGRAM INTEGRITY
Social Security also has a problem in an area known as “program integrity.” In Congress, lawmakers usually use the phrase to refer to fraudulent benefit claims — and they’ve pushed the SSA over the past decade to crack down by earmarking a significant portion of the agency’s budget for programming integrity activities.
Many of these activities focused on removing people from disability benefits based on an assessment of medical improvement. Last year Congress set aside $1.6 billion for disability and other assessments — a staggering 12% of the total administrative budget.
Next year, the SSA plans to increase medical disability ratings by 36% and the number of SSI recasts by 23%, notes David Weaver, a former associate commissioner with the Social Security Office of Research, Demonstration and Employment Support. security.
But we need a broader definition of “integrity” that also includes benefits that should be paid for – and which are not. The agency has identified 80 different groups of people who fit this description. The problem could be a mistake made by the SSA, or due to a change in an individual’s eligibility. Examples include children of disabled workers and those who may not know they are entitled to partner or survivor benefits.
“To be fair to the public, Congress should allow SSA to spend program integrity funds to correct underpayments and missed payments rather than just focusing on removing people from the disability roles through a somewhat flawed review process” said Weaver.
The SSA will report to the White House in August on ways it can help underserved communities as part of a broader assessment of the federal government that Biden ordered on his first day in office. That should be a stepping stone to kick-start the SSA on this front — if it has the funding it needs to get the job done. (Writing by Mark Miller Editing by Matthew Lewis)