As field offices reopen, President Biden needs to prioritize Social Security
After two long years, Social Security offices are scheduled to reopen in early April.
It was wrong to keep them closed (to all but those deemed to be in dire need) for so long. Post offices never closed. Like them, Social Security’s field offices provide essential services. Those two years of closed offices weren’t just an inconvenience; the long closure inflicted real harm.
During the two years of closed offices, claims for disability benefits plummeted, at a time when they should have skyrocketed, given the pandemic. Important research has found that closing just a single office causes significantly fewer claims by people who would have qualified for benefits, had they applied.
At long last, field offices are set to reopen to the public. But the reopening may be rocky — or worse. There may be very long lines; there may be people who wait and wait but are not served. People may be forced to wait outside in the rain. If things go horribly wrong, there could even be violence, committed by people who are desperate.
The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) should have started planning for reopening the day the offices were closed. But unfortunately, the commissioner at the time was a Donald Trump crony, Andrew Saul, who was only too happy to work from home himself, even before the pandemic.
Ralph de Juliis, head of the union council representing field office workers, also contributed to the two years of closed offices. Shockingly, he has publicly advocated for permanently shuttering almost all of the more than 1200 field offices. (His desire to close offices likely does not reflect the views of the workers he represents, dedicated civil servants committed to serving the public as well as they possibly can.)
What the public wants and deserves is more and better in-person service, not less. In addition to simply reopening field offices, the Biden administration should push Congress to fully fund SSA. This would allow the agency to increase the number of field offices and expand the number of workers in the offices.
There is more than enough dedicated revenue to open new offices and hire new employees.
Social Security currently has a $2.9 trillion surplus. The problem is that Congress limits how much of that surplus SSA can spend each year. Congress should allow SSA to spend just a few tenths of a percent more. Instead, Congress has starved SSA — and continues to do so.
The Omnibus funding bill recently passed by Congress drastically underfunds SSA. It only allows the agency to spend $13.2 billion on administrative expenses. That’s less than 0.5 percent of Social Security’s surplus. It’s almost $1 billion less than the Biden administration requested. It is far less than what’s needed for SSA to ensure that Americans are served promptly, rather than spending hours waiting on the phone or in person.
This is part of a long pattern of Congress underfunding SSA, which began years before the pandemic. Between 2010 and 2021, SSA’s operating budget fell by 13 percent. During the same period, the number of beneficiaries grew by 21 percent due largely to the (still ongoing) retirement of the Baby Boom generation.
There was no fiscal reason for these cuts. Social Security doesn’t add a single penny to the federal deficit. All benefits and all associated administrative costs are paid from its dedicated revenue. Moreover, Social Security is run extremely efficiently, with less than a penny of every dollar spent on operating costs. That’s far more cost-effective than private-sector pension programs.
As an incredibly popular and effective government-run program, Social Security puts the lie to the Republican mantra that government is always a problem, never the solution. In fact, there are some things the government — that is, we the people acting collectively — does better than the private sector. Social Security is one of them.
Despite Social Security’s proven success, George W. Bush, Paul Ryan, and other leaders of the Republican Party spent years trying to cut and privatize Social Security. Fortunately, these efforts failed time and time again because voters, including Republican voters, overwhelmingly oppose cutting Social Security. So Republican lawmakers decided to switch tactics and focus on sabotaging the program from within. They slashed the operating budget, aiming, presumably, to bleed Social Security to death by a thousand cuts.
As a result, Social Security was forced to close 67 field offices between 2010 and 2018. At the remaining offices, operating hours were shortened and lines out the door became commonplace. Hold times on the agency’s 1-800 number increased. The wait time to determine eligibility for disability benefits increased to over two years, with over 100,000 Americans dying while waiting for a hearing.
For most of its history, SSA had a well-deserved reputation for providing exemplary service to the public. People went to their local field offices knowing they would get excellent, compassionate help with their earned benefits. It was considered one of the best federal agencies to work for, as well. Now, it ranks near the bottom. Training, which used to be extensive and first-rate, has reportedly deteriorated.
Last July, President Biden removed Trump’s commissioner from office. This was an important step to protect Social Security and begin the process of restoring SSA. But in the last year, Social Security has not been a priority for the Biden administration.
As simply one example of this benign neglect, the White House just issued an executive order establishing a Gender Policy Council. It is comprised of 36 agency heads. Every agency you’ve ever heard of, and probably many you have not, are included. Every agency but one: SSA is not included. Left out, despite the fact that SSA confronts gender policy issues in countless ways, probably more than any other agency.
This is no way to treat one of America’s largest and most important government programs, a true institution that affects everyone’s life. Fortunately, it is not too late to change course. Congress will likely consider a supplemental appropriations bill soon, to address COVID funding and other pressing needs. President Biden must push Congress to use that bill to fully fund SSA.
While he’s at it, he should remember his campaign promise to expand Social Security. Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) has changed his signature Social Security 2100 Act to be fully consistent with Biden’s campaign platform. In addition to fighting for more SSA funding, Biden should urge Congress to vote on the 2100 Act.
Fighting for more funding for SSA’s essential services, and for expanded benefits, is the right thing to do. It would show all voters that Democrats care about serving the public. That means improving everyone’s economic security and ensuring that we all receive the first-rate service at Social Security field offices that we deserve and have paid for.
Nancy Altman is president of Social Security Works.