Tucked inside the sweeping $1.3 trillion spending bill passed late last week by Congress was an item that has not been in a budget for nearly a decade: a funding increase for the Social Security Administration, an agency bedeviled by staff shortages that have contributed to a crushing backlog of disability claims stretching past 1 million.
The omnibus appropriations bill increased funding to the federal agency by $480 million, bringing its overall administrative budget to more than $12 billion. Roughly $100 million of the increased allocation will target the disability hearing backlog, in which claimants on average wait around 600 days for a judge to decide whether they will receive benefits including health insurance and a monthly payment.
The funding comes amid a hardening stance across the nation toward recipients of public benefits. Several states, including Kentucky and Arkansas, have moved forward with work requirements for Medicaid recipients, and the Trump administration has called for a dramatic slashing of the social safety net.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the ranking non-Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, and the leading proponent of the funding increase, said he became committed to securing additional money for the understaffed agency after reading an article last year in The Washington Post, which examined the personal cost of waiting for a disability decision and reported that 10,000 people had died waiting during fiscal year 2017.
“I could not believe that 10,000 people died,” he said. “It was beyond belief and unacceptable.”
The agency’s administrative budget has remained roughly stagnant since 2010, even though the number of people receiving retirement and disability benefits rose by more than 7 million as a population bulge of baby boomers neared retirement benefits and reached an age when developing disabilities is more likely. In roughly that same period, as judges worked with a shrinking support staff and scrutiny over the growing disability rolls heightened, the average judge went from deciding 12 cases weekly to deciding fewer than 10, contributing to the significant backlog.
About $280 million of the funding increase will be directed toward updating the agency’s information system, which might help judges work through their caseloads faster. The $100 million specifically addressing the backlog will go toward hiring more judges and expanding the support staff.
Advocates applauded the additional allocations but cautioned that while it may appear to be a lot of money, the agency’s needs are still great.
“It’s very, very important. We’ve got 10,000 people who are turning 65 every day,” said Nancy Altman, president of the advocacy organization Social Security Works. “This money doesn’t get [the backlog] back to where we should be, but it does get us back down on those wait times.”
The wait for a disability decision can be excruciating. Applicants are advised not to work while they wait — doing so would suggest to judged that they are not disabled — and so many languish, sometimes for years, without any income. People lose homes, cars, life savings. Marriages fracture. Some commit suicide. Others die of disabilities they did not have the resources to treat.
What Americans “want when they get on the phone or walk into [an SSA] office is that they get treated in a kindly and appropriate manner, and that is increasingly not the case,” Sanders said. “We want to make sure [Social Security] functions, and that’s what this is all about.”