Each November, the Social Security Administration (SSA) releases its Agency Financial Report. In the last several years, tucked away in the back of the report, is a discussion of “potential entitlements.” This is language the agency uses to describe situations where individuals should be receiving benefits but are not because of agency errors or because individuals are unaware of their eligibility for benefits.
An important example will illustrate.
In 2016, the agency discovered that, due to computer errors, more than 20,000 children per application year were not receiving Social Security benefits they were due (children are eligible for Social Security in the event that a parent dies or becomes disabled). Since this error was long-standing, it means, as an illustration, nearly 200,000 children in a 10-year period missed out on benefits they were legally due.
To date, SSA has still not contacted any of these families to help them receive their benefits.
Indeed, a very modest effort to contact families of the initial group of 20,000 children has been postponed year after year.
The case of children missing out on benefits is just one example. How many other groups are out there? Quite a few.
In its 2016 Agency Financial Report, the agency reported there were 80 categories of individuals missing out on Social Security benefits. These groups included certain widows, retirees, spouses, and children, as well as groups affected by special Social Security provisions such as some military veterans. SSA has made very little progress in helping these groups receive their benefits.
There are several systemic problems that need to be addressed.
First, SSA officials need to elevate these projects to a priority level. Paying benefits — often to vulnerable populations — is, in reality, SSA’s only mission. Second, SSA’s Office of Inspector General has been negligent in its oversight of agency activities. Had there been 80 categories of “waste, fraud, and abuse” listed in an SSA report, the IG would no doubt have launched 80 aggressive audits and issued as many press releases about how much money it had saved the taxpayers. But when it comes to ensuring the agency meets its core mission of benefit payments, there has been little to no oversight.
Another systemic problem is the lack of congressional oversight. This may be due to difficulty in getting detailed information on the internal workings of SSA. Congress has a number of options, however, to conduct oversight. These include briefings by the agency, mandatory reports from the agency, congressional hearings, or requesting audits through the IG or GAO.
In addition to oversight, Congress may want to make structural changes to the Social Security Administration. One possibility is to create, within the organization, a Beneficiary Advocate office, just as the IRS has a Taxpayer Advocate. (Interestingly, it was the Taxpayer Advocate at the IRS that publicly highlighted difficulties that Social Security beneficiaries with dependents were facing in receiving economic stimulus payments.)
An Office of the Beneficiary Advocate could improve the administration of the Social Security programs in two ways. First, the Advocate would be on the inside of the agency and be privy to internal discussions. By voicing concerns publicly about internal problems, the Advocate would make the administration of the program more transparent to Congress and the public.
Second, the Advocate would offer needed balance to discussions of administrative issues. Management at SSA is primarily concerned with minimizing the operational workload of the agency. Union officials do, at times, raise concerns about poor service to the public but, by design, unions focus much of their attention on personnel policy. And, to date, the IG has focused on “waste, fraud, and abuse” and not service to beneficiaries.
Congress should also explore the level of funding it provides SSA to administer its programs. The agency is arguably under resourced and operationally stressed. This creates an environment in which it is easy for agency officials to argue they do not have the resources to properly serve the public.
In addition, Congress earmarks a substantial amount of SSA’s administrative budget for what is referred to as “program integrity.” One might think that program integrity would include activities that ensure individuals are paid the benefits they are due under the law, but that is not the case. Rather, this large amount of funding ($1.6 billion proposed for FY 2021) is to conduct disability reviews that remove a very small percentage of disability beneficiaries from the rolls.
Congress may wish to allow SSA to use some of the program integrity funding to work the large backlog of potential entitlement cases. At this point, the best use of another dollar of administrative funding may be for activities that ensure individuals receive benefits they are due, rather than to conduct more disability reviews.
Social Security, in a sense, is the domestic policy program of the United States. It is the largest program in the United States and is a gateway to another large program (Medicare). As the crown jewel of America’s public programs, its administration is worthy of some renewed attention from Congress.
David A. Weaver, Ph.D., is an economist and retired federal employee who has authored a number of studies on the Social Security program. The views in this article do not reflect the views of any federal agency.