Long Lines at Social Security Offices and What We Can do to Shorten Them
By Jessie Gibbons, Legislative Director
If you’ve been to a Social Security field office in the past few years, you’ve noticed longer wait times, fewer staff members, unanswered phone calls, more visitors, and frustrated employees. You may have even seen your local Social Security field office shutter its doors.
Since 2010, the Social Security Administration’s budget has declined by 9 percent, resulting in a loss of 10,000 employees and the closure of more than 10 percent of all field offices nationwide. At the same time, the number of Social Security beneficiaries has increased dramatically — by 15 percent.
Under current law, Social Security benefits are considered “mandatory spending” and they are required by law to be paid out directly to beneficiaries with no budget limits. However, the Social Security Administration’s funding for administrative purposes is deemed “discretionary spending,” and lawmakers, through the annual appropriations process, negotiate it to decide on funding. That means Congress must set the Administration’s funding levels every year. Recently, lawmakers have been short-changing the program’s administrative finances, at a time when 10,000 older Americans are becoming eligible for benefits every day.
As a result of the inadequate administrative funding for the Social Security Administration, both the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) and the Disability Insurance (DI) programs are struggling to serve the public. More than 1 million applicants are currently waiting to hear whether they qualify for DI benefits, and those who have appealed recent rejections must wait 600 days or longer for their cases to be re-heard. In 2017 alone, 10,000 individuals died while waiting on their DI eligibility decisions. While waiting, they had no access to DI benefits or Medicare coverage, which recipients with long-term disabilities can receive after they are enrolled in the program for two years.
In an attempt to address these administrative funding challenges, Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) – Ranking Member of the Senate Budget Committee – and Congressman John Larson (CT-1) – Ranking Member of the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee – recently introduced the Social Security Administration Fairness Act (S. 3147, H.R. 6251) along with six Senate cosponsors and twenty House cosponsors. If adopted, their bill would accomplish the following:
- Permanently set the Social Security Administration’s administrative funding at 1.5 percent of overall benefit payments. This would more than double the funding that the administration currently receives, and it would help reduce the growing DI backlog while ensuring that beneficiaries receive the service they have earned and deserve from the Social Security Administration.
- Implement a moratorium on all field office and contact station closures. Since 2010, one in ten field offices, and all rural contact stations run by the Social Security Administration, have closed due to inadequate funding. At a time when thousands of individuals are retiring every day, a moratorium would improve access to the essential services provided by these offices.
- Eliminate two waiting periods for approved DI recipients. Under current law, approved DI beneficiaries must wait five months to begin receiving monthly benefits, and those with long-term disabilities must wait two years to begin receiving Medicare benefits. In a recent poll of The Senior Citizens League’s supporters, 65 percent of respondents said they believe both waiting periods should be eliminated, while only 20 percent said they should be kept in place.
Upon introducing the comprehensive bill back in June, Congressman Larson said: “These are benefits that American workers have paid for and earned with every paycheck – they have earned the right to better service.” The Senior Citizens League agrees, and we were proud to support the Social Security Administration Fairness Act. Since the legislation was introduced, we have been advocating for its passage on Capitol Hill, and we hope to see it signed into law in the coming months.
For more information about the Social Security Administration Fairness Act, visit the Bill Tracking section of our website. For progress updates on the bill’s movement through Congress, follow TSCL on Twitter.