Like everything else, Congress is underfunding the Social Security Administration

Like everything else, Congress is underfunding the Social Security Administration
© Getty Images

Americans contact the Social Security Administration at the most vulnerable points in their lives — upon the death of a loved one, retirement, or when facing a life-changing disability. The last thing they need is a hassle in securing benefits.

After all, they paid for those benefits during their working years through Social Security payroll taxes. But thanks to draconian budget cuts to the Social Security Administration (SSA), too many applicants face long hold times and busy signals— or deadly-long waits for disability hearings.

Literally thousands of disabled Americans die every year waiting for adjudication of claims. Meanwhile, some 10,000 Baby Boomers become eligible for Social Security retirement benefits every day. You don’t have to be an actuary to figure out: When workloads increase and funding is cut, service suffers.


I was on Capitol Hill this past Thursday along with other advocates and U.S. Senators, demanding that Congress restore adequate funding for the Social Security Administration.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Disney laying off 32,000 workers as coronavirus batters theme parks Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year MORE (D-Mass.) said that underfunding the SSA does a disservice to millions of disabled Americans, retirees, and children whose families depend on Social Security survivor benefits. “The government cannot be a good steward of Social Security without adequate support in the budget,” she insisted.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Clyburn: Biden falling short on naming Black figures to top posts Prepare for buyers' remorse when Biden/Harris nationalize health care MORE (I-Vt.) says Congress is “making a very bad situation even worse” by considering cuts to the SSA operating budget. “This is not cost-saving,” he warned, “It’s an effort to destroy Social Security.” Sanders castigated lawmakers for allowing disabled Americans to languish while awaiting Social Security hearings. “You wait and wait and wait, and then you die,” he said.

Thanks to a bad budget deal, the agency’s operating funding has suffered an 11 percent cut (adjusted for inflation) since 2010. The effects of those cuts have been starkly visible for Social Security claimants:

  1. The average wait time on Social Security’s toll-free phone line was 18 minutes (up from 3 minutes in 2010).
  2. Since 2010, SSA has closed more than 60 field offices and 500 mobile offices due to budget cuts. Some 16,000 claimants waited more than an hour for in-person service in August, 2017.
  3. SSA has severely cut back on the number of Social Security Statements mailed out to current and future beneficiaries, from 153 million in 2010 to ten million in 2017. Today, only workers over age 60 who do not have an online My Social Security account receive statements in the mail.
  4. The average national wait time for a Social Security disability insurance hearing is the highest ever. In August, 2017, claimants waited an average 627 days for the opportunity to appeal their cases to an administrative law judge. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that 10,000 disabled Americans died waiting for a hearing in fiscal 2017.

These figures should be unacceptable even to the most voracious budget hawks. But the Trump administration and Congress continue to squeeze SSA to the detriment of retirees, survivors, and the disabled. President TrumpDonald John TrumpVenezuela judge orders prison time for 6 American oil executives Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation MORE’s 2018 budget proposal essentially flatlines SSA’s funding.

The House-approved fiscal 2018 appropriations legislation would continue underfunding the agency, freezing SSA’s operating budget for another year. The Senate Appropriations Committee has proposed an even more painful reduction of some $460 million, nearly 4 percent of the agency’s operating budget.

SSA is already one of the most efficient federal agencies. Its total administrative expenses are less than one percent of total benefit payments. What’s more, the agency’s administration of Social Security is funded by workers’ payroll contributions and not from general revenue – making it especially unfair to bleed SSA to offset other federal expenditures.

So why continue to cut the agency’s budget? Social Security’s enemies in the Congress may have a rather cynical reason. Starving SSA’s operating funding may be a backdoor attempt to dismantle Social Security by eroding public confidence. Frustrate enough applicants with lousy service and they may turn against Social Security itself, making it easier to cut the benefits in the future. We vehemently reject that strategy.

It’s time for members of Congress to adequately fund SSA so that it can perform vital tasks without burdensome delays and headaches for the public. During the upcoming debate on fiscal 2018 appropriations, we urge senators and representatives to vote against the Senate Appropriations Committee’s proposed $460 million cut — and to actually increase SSA’s operating budget so the agency can do its job for the American people.

Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a membership organization which promotes the financial security, health, and well being of current and future generations of maturing Americans.