Social Security is facing dark times — not just figuratively, but as in the lights would go out.
That’s the warning from Social Security Administration (SSA) officials if an appropriations bill pushed by House Republicans takes effect.
“There would be up to two weeks of furloughs for all employees,” the agency said in information obtained by The Washington Post. “During this time, our offices would be closed to the public. Additionally, a full hiring freeze would cause service degradation and long wait times and delays. As a result, many Americans may wait longer to receive the benefits they have been planning to use during their retirement, and the most vulnerable of our citizens will have to wait even longer for disability claims decisions, causing more hardship and frustration for millions of families.”
It’s not like Social Security is operating in the flush now. Since 2010, its operating budget has shrunk 10 percent after inflation while the number of beneficiaries rose by 12 percent. President Obama has proposed an $11.1 billion administrative budget for fiscal year 2017, $522 million more than this year. House Republicans have proposed $772 million less than the president’s budget, according to SSA figures, while Senate Republicans would reduce agency spending by $582 million. The administrative budget is separate from the trust fund that pays benefits to recipients.
“Social Security has been the most successful antipoverty program in U.S. history, helping men and women, children, adults and seniors from all walks of life,” said Maya Rockeymoore, president and CEO of the Center for Global Policy Solutions, by email. It convened the 2011 Commission to Modernize Social Security and recently released a report on Social Security’s role in lifting children out of poverty. “In the face of larger macro forces destabilizing economic security for families (the retirement crisis, stagnating wages, poverty), the growing numbers of retirees, disabled adults, and children who rely on Social Security would be better served if the program’s benefits were strengthened, not weakened.”
Social Security eventually touches the lives of almost all Americas. It provides old-age income as well as assistance to others of all ages. But SSA officials predict those services would be seriously interrupted with funding cuts planned by House Republicans.
Carolyn W. Colvin, SSA’s acting commissioner, called on Congress to strengthen the program by passing the Obama administration’s spending plan. “The president’s 2017 budget funding level will allow us to continue to balance our service and stewardship activities,” she said. “It will also allow us to invest in and leverage technology to modernize our service delivery for the millions of people who we help to secure today and tomorrow.”
Yet, the services don’t seem so well balanced now.
More than 1.1 million people are waiting for a disability hearing. That means they have to wait more than 500 days, on average, to get a decision on their appeals. SSA has closed more than 60 field offices and 500 mobile offices since 2010. Last year, waits of three weeks for an appointment were common. Callers to the 800 number have to wait 13 minutes on average, if they get through at all.
Calling the House reductions “mind-boggling,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations labor, health and human services, education subcommittee, said “these cuts would be a disaster and the American people will suffer.” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the panel, did not respond to a request for comment.
The union representing many agency employees views the cuts as a precursor to privatizing Social Security.
“Cutting staff when SSA is processing historically high claims is irresponsible and a sign that the Republicans who voted for this cut are not interested in providing tax payers with good service regarding SSA,” said Witold Skwierczynski, president of the American Federation of Government Employees SSA Council. “Instead they appear to be creating a scenario that insures the collapse of the program and will enhance the push to privatize it. If the public loses trust and faith that the federal government can administer SSA, they will look to privatization proposals as an alternative.”