A Check for Social Security

By Stephen Barr
Friday, November 2, 2007

The Social Security Administration -- where staffing is at its lowest levels since the 1970s and the number of disability claims are at an all-time high -- got some hopeful news on its budget yesterday.

The House and Senate appropriations committees agreed to provide the agency with $9.9 billion for operations in fiscal 2008. That is $275 million more than the Bush administration requested and probably enough to keep Social Security from drowning, at least for the short term, in its growing workload.

"It is good news," said Richard E. Warsinskey, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations. "It won't solve the backlog we have, but it will help address the backlog."

The funding increase is part of a huge spending bill that includes $150.7 billion for education, job training, medical research and social services. The bill is $9.8 billion above what President Bush requested, and his aides have predicted he will veto it.

So the agency's managers and groups that represent retirees are lobbying to hang on to the money. "If we end up going backward, we could get in trouble again," Warsinskey said.

About 746,000 cases are lined up for hearings on disability claims, and the average wait is 512 days. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the chief sponsor of an amendment to increase Social Security's budget for next year, said the number of disabled workers drawing disability benefits has more than doubled since 1990, to 6.8 million from 3 million.

The Social Security workload will grow over the next decade as baby boomers retire. The number of workers receiving Social Security benefits is projected to increase during that period by 13 million.

But staffing at Social Security will soon be at its lowest level since 1973. The number of workers will drop below 60,000 in the second half of fiscal 2008, the agency estimates. Thirty years ago, it had about 87,000 employees.

Forty organizations, including AARP, Easter Seals, Gray Panthers and various labor unions, wrote House appropriators this month to urge increased funding for Social Security. Their letter said that Social Security field offices get about 850,000 visitors per week and that visitors at many field offices have to wait more than two hours for service.

Those waits could get longer. About 41 percent of claims representatives, a key sector of Social Security's workforce, will be eligible to retire by 2010, according to the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

Michael J. Astrue, the Social Security commissioner, has said that inadequate funding since 2001 is largely to blame for staffing and workload problems.

In a September letter to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), whose subcommittee on appropriations oversees the agency's funding, Astrue said Social Security requires a minimum increase of about $300 million each year to pay for rent, guards, postage, raises and benefits.

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