There’s an old saying: You get what you pay for.

Or maybe not, at least in the world of Social Security.

Workers pay for the Social Security Administration (SSA) through paycheck deductions, but as a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says, “only to the extent that Congress allows SSA to spend it.”

In recent years, budget cuts and caps on a program that eventually touches almost all us have resulted in service cuts for the American people.

Here are the bullet points from the Center, a progressive think tank:

  • “Budget cuts forced SSA to impose a hiring freeze in 2011, which led to a deterioration in SSA phone service that the agency has only partially reversed.  In 2016, the average caller to SSA’s 800 number can expect to spend over 15 minutes on hold, and nearly 10 percent of callers will receive busy signals.
  • “The cuts also affected SSA field offices, where people can apply for benefits, replace lost Social Security cards, or report name changes (due to a marriage or divorce, for example).  SSA has closed 64 field offices and 533 mobile offices since 2010 and reduced hours at remaining offices.  Before the budget cuts, more than 90 percent of applicants could schedule an appointment within three weeks; by 2015, fewer than half could.
  • “During the Great Recession, the number of Disability Insurance (DI) applications — and rejections — rose dramatically, yet SSA lacked the resources to keep up with appeals from rejected applicants.  The average wait for a hearing rose from 360 to 540 days between 2011 and 2016.  The number of applicants awaiting a hearing has risen to over 1 million, an all-time high.
  • “Lack of adequate staff forced SSA to delay critical behind-the-scenes work necessary to pay benefits accurately and on time, such as awarding widows’ benefits when their spouses die and adjusting benefits for early retirees and disabled workers with earnings.  Beneficiaries wait an average of four months for SSA to complete these tasks.”

SSA doesn’t dodge the reality of its falling service. An SSA statement said the agency succeeds in its mission when “we receive predictable and sustained funding.” For several years, however, its budget has “hindered our ability to completely fulfill our mission. With limited resources and the demand for our services at historically high levels, we have had to make tough choices and trade-offs.”

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Despite the service cuts, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations labor, health and human services, and education subcommittee, takes a different view. “SSA’s workloads are increasing as more baby boomers approach retirement age,” said a statement from his office, “but their administrative budget has significantly increased too.”

The increases aren’t that significant, according to Kathleen Romig, the senior policy analyst at the Center who wrote the report. She said the increase approved Thursday by the full committee is not enough to keep pace with inflation and “would continue squeezing the Social Security Administration.”

SSA says its administrative costs are just 1.3 percent of benefit payments, so those looking for fat won’t find much.

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The cuts have a widespread impact, because “nearly every American comes to SSA at some point — either in person, on the phone, or through its expanding online services — and they do so at the best and worst moments of their lives,” Romig’s report said. “They use SSA services when they have a baby, get married, or start a new job.  They depend on SSA staff to help them when they face a life-altering disability, the death of a spouse or parent, or decisions about financing their retirement years.  They expect excellent service and — importantly — they have paid for it.”

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The federal employees who provide SSA services can get hit twice by the cuts. Once when staffing levels are cut and again when they, as clients, have to endure poor service like everyone else.

“One reason for the widespread support of the Social Security program is that citizens know they will receive their benefit check on time and can rely on a network of well-trained field office staff to answer a question or solve a problem that might arise,” said Witold Skwierczynski, president of the Social Security Council of the American Federation of Government Employees. “All of this is placed in jeopardy by unnecessary, unjustified and inappropriate reductions in their budget.”

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