Social Security is:

A. A Ponzi scheme?

B. One of the nation’s most important and effective social programs?

C. At risk of being significantly less than it has been, no matter the answers to A and B?

The answer is C, at least in terms of service to the public.

That’s the bottom line from Social Security Administration and union officials who are worried that budget cuts could force them to close offices, limit services and cut staff.

After a recent briefing by SSA officials on the potential impact of budget reduction scenarios, the union representing 30,000 Social Security employees in 1,200 field offices sent a letter to Democratic senators “to express our deep-seated concerns about the impact of potential reductions in spending on the program and its beneficiaries.”

The potential cuts are being discussed as the older population that Social Security serves grows. Baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, started turning 65 this year, and the number of older people will increase greatly during the 2010-30 period, AARP says.

“The older population in 2030 is projected to be twice as large as their counterparts in 2000, growing from 35 million to 72 million and representing nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. population,” the organization said in a May letter to Congress.

At the same time, the recession has led to an increase in disability claims.

The letter from the National Council of Social Security Administration Field Operations Locals, which is part of the American Federation of Government Employees, looked at three budget scenarios: the current status of the SSA; the fiscal 2012 situation, with only current funding; and 2012 with a 5 percent reduction.

It was sent to Democrats on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the supercommittee. Rebutting Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s description of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme,” the labor organization said that “no program has done more to protect middle class individuals when they retire or become disabled.”

But the level of service the elderly and disabled have come to expect could diminish more than it has already if the SSA budget is whittled away. In August, the SSA began closing its field offices 30 minutes early to save on overtime payments to staff members.

“Given the tight budget situation, we’ve had to make tough choices,” said SSA spokesman Mark Hinkle. “This includes an 80 percent reduction in overtime for our front-line employees, resulting in about $100 million less in overtime this fiscal year.”

That’s just the tip of what is facing SSA customers and employees.

According to the union letter, which was reviewed by the SSA at the Federal Diary’s request, even with current funding, the agency has had to freeze hiring in most of its sections; expects to lose about 2,500 federal employees, plus 1,000 state employees who are paid with federal funds; did not open eight new hearing offices; and has suspended mailing Social Security statements.

If the 2012 budget remains at 2011 levels, it would be an effective $800 million cut, in part because of increasing costs, according to the letter. The SSA workforce would drop by an additional 4,400 federal and state employees, for a total of 7,900 workers in two years. Almost 400,000 fewer disability claims would be processed, taking the backlog to 1.2 million and the processing time to longer than four months.

That also “would greatly delay other less visible workloads, as S.S.A faces a snowball effect of staffing losses two years in a row,” the union letter said.

If the supercommittee’s hunt for trillions in cuts results in a 5 percent reduction in the SSA budget, agency staffers and the state workers it funds could get hit with 24 unpaid furlough days. In terms of service to the public, “each furlough day would result in approximately 19,000 retirement claims, 11,000 initial disability claims, and 3,000 hearings S.S.A would not be able to complete,” the union said.

SSA managers also see hard times ahead.

Joe Dirago, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, said that no additional SSA funding coupled with increased workloads would “almost certainly result in reduced levels of service to the American public, including backlogs or delays in critical core workloads, increased visitor waiting times, unanswered phone calls, and increased processing times.”

What a bleak picture.

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