The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Time is money: Let’s open Social Security field offices, not close them

Getty Images

Thanks to determined, effective resistance by the American people, opponents of Social Security have failed so far to cut our earned benefits. But those opponents have succeeded in forcing neighborhood field offices to close, making those earned benefits more difficult to access. Fortunately, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) has introduced legislation to reverse that death by a thousand cuts.

The shuttering of Social Security field offices undermines our economic security. Social Security is most Americans’ largest asset. Its benefits are often the only retirement annuities, life insurance, and disability insurance that America’s working families have. Deciding when to claim Social Security retirement benefits is a complicated question, because it depends on people’s individual circumstances 

{mosads}Though financial advisers and authors make money providing advice on when to claim benefits, the best source of information is the Social Security Administration. Financial advisers are more likely to lead people astray because they may have an interest in selling products, may believe the myth that Social Security is “going bankrupt” and advise people to claim benefits before they should, and often do not have expertise in the intricacies of the program. SSA, on the other hand, has the expertise and the goal of simply serving the public as well as it can.

Recognizing its essential role, SSA describes itself in its literature as “the face of government in our communities.” With its network of more than 1,200 field offices across the nation, that is an accurate characterization. Indeed, SSA provides in-person services to approximately 170,000 people every day.

Importantly, that in-person service is our right, since we have purchased it ourselves through our Social Security contributions. Like Social Security benefits, the associated costs of administering those benefits are totally financed from Social Security’s dedicated revenue.

And polling makes clear that the American people want the services they have purchased. Around 60 percent of people want to call or visit a local office to receive a new Social Security card and for advice before and during their application for retirement benefits. And, an overwhelming 86 percent of Americans want more, and certainly not fewer, local field offices in the future.

The cost of those field offices and the rest of the costs associated with administering Social Security are extremely low. Indeed, of every dollar Social Security spends, more than 99 cents is paid in benefits. Well less than a penny is spent on administration, a level of efficiency unheard of in the private sector. Despite these facts, Republican Congresses have been starving those field offices.

Although Social Security has an accumulated reserve of over $2.8 trillion, Congress restricts SSA’s access to that money. Indeed, Congress has reduced SSA’s budget by approximately 10 percent over the last decade, resulting in field office closings, massive layoffs, and workload backlogs. Nationwide, 64 Social Security field offices and over 500 mobile field offices have been closed just since 2011. Average wait times at offices have climbed to nearly an hour, and nearly half of those who call the 1-800 number abandon their calls due to excessive time on hold or busy signals. The wait time for a hearing to determine eligibility for Social Security disability benefits is an average of 19 months. Thousands have gone bankrupt, lost their homes, and even died, while on that waiting list.

Congress’s SSA stranglehold has forced many Americans to spend time and effort fighting to keep their local field offices open after unexpected closures were announced. But the pleas of those Americans have gone largely unheard, and the doors of their local field offices have been closed, despite their efforts. That has caused those Americans to waste their time traveling to distant offices, if they can reach them at all. Adding insult to injury, the office closings are often 11th hour announcements, because SSA knows how controversial office closings are.

Thankfully, Moore, whose constituents on the south side of Milwaukee saw the shuttering of their field office, has recently introduced H.R. 7146, the Maintain Access to Vital Social Security Services Act. That important legislation would require SSA to operate a sufficient number of field offices and employ an adequate number of personnel at each field office to provide convenient and accessible services to the public while minimizing wait times.

In addition, the bill would create important checks on a Social Security commissioner who is considering closing a field office. H.R. 7146 would shift the decision-making process from behind closed doors into public view. Once this bill becomes law, SSA will have to provide public notification before a proposed closure, separately notify all relevant elected officials, hold at least two public hearings, and write a public report, if SSA decided to move forward with the closure. This sort of transparency is critical for SSA and Congress to truly understand the potential harm caused by closing or consolidating SSA field offices.

This bill also includes new reporting requirements that would help Congress understand past and future office closings. First, the bill would require SSA to include any plans to close, consolidate or reduce services in its annual budget. An additional provision would require SSA to write a report to Congress explaining any closures over the past five years, along with its plan to ensure that field offices maintain their current level of service.  

This is an important step. Another step should be the enactment of the Social Security Administration Fairness Act, which was introduced earlier this year by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and six of his colleagues in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, it is sponsored by Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), ranking member (soon to be chairman) of the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, and co-sponsored by 35 of his House colleagues.

That important legislation would stop Congress from arbitrarily limiting how much of Social Security’s surplus SSA can spend on administration. Instead, it would provide SSA with sufficient automatic funding to restore and maintain the first-class service it was known for historically — service the American people not only deserve but have paid for!

But these sensible, important legislative proposals will not happen on their own. If you believe that your government should provide you convenient access to the information you need to make the best decision possible about your earned Social Security benefits, contact your senators and representative. Tell them to co-sponsor these important bills and fight to make them law.

Altman is President of Social Security Works.

Tags Bernie Sanders Gwen Moore John Larson

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

More Politics News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video