Congressional appropriators prioritize Ukraine, but not Social Security

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Elites in America often marvel at the supposed ignorance of the American people, who, when surveyed, overestimate how much is spent on foreign aid. However, it is possible the public understands something the elites do not: Service from the government is often so bad that there must be something wrong with domestic spending.

Congressional appropriators recently provided more money for the country of Ukraine ($13.6 billion) than they did for administering Social Security ($13.3 billion). A crisis in Europe — particularly with Cold War overtones — naturally draws the interest of U.S. leaders, and there’s no question the people of Ukraine are suffering greatly from the Russian invasion. Congress rapidly approved the president’s request for Ukraine funding and even added an extra $3.6 billion.

Funding for the Social Security Administration (SSA), which runs the largest and most important program in the United States? That’s different. Congressional appropriators decided to cut the President’s FY 2022 request by about $1 billion, which will result in severe hardship for Americans, particularly Americans from low income and minority communities, who will now not be able to access benefits.

It’s possible to laud assistance to Ukraine and still wonder what’s wrong at home.

Since 2010, SSA’s operational budget has fallen in real terms by 13 percent while the number of beneficiaries it serves has grown by 21 percent. 

The effects of underfunding an agency with a growing workload are not particularly surprising: large backlogs (one million Americans are currently waiting for a disability determination from SSA), a collapsing service infrastructure (SSA’s phone systems are physically breaking down under the volume of calls), and furious members of the public who, in the most difficult times of their lives, cannot get help.

The service declines at SSA have disproportionately affected persons who are poor, disabled, and from minority communities. Half a million poor and disabled beneficiaries have lost access to benefits from SSA in the last two years. 

Much of the funding problem is institutional: Members on the appropriations committees and their staffs are not knowledgeable about Social Security. The technical expertise on Social Security resides with the authorizing committees, Ways and Means and Senate Finance. To the appropriators, Social Security is just one of the many things in line to get funded. There is little appreciation of the program’s size, scope, and importance.

The lack of attention from appropriators can be seen even in small ways. The House summary of the funding bill is a classic example of majoring in the minors. The reader of the summary learns about many small programs that have a few million dollars in additional funding this year. At the very end of the 12-page summary (just after some discussion of funding for museums), the reader finally encounters a brief sentence on how much will be given to run the most important program in the country.

To its credit, however, the House at least mentions Social Security in its summary. The Senate summary does not even list funding for the country’s most important program.

The lack of attention from appropriators can be seen in large ways, as well. The committees do not hold hearings to learn about the Social Security program or its operational needs. If it were not for the Senate Finance Committee, there would have been no serious discussion in the current Congress of the service challenges facing the agency.

It is also important to note that the appropriators compounded their mistakes in the funding bill by only cutting the customer service portion of SSA’s budget and leaving the amount for continuing disability reviews (CDRs) and redeterminations fully funded. CDRs and redeterminations, which account for 13 percent of SSA’s budget, are designed to remove disability beneficiaries with improved health or circumstances from the rolls, but the process is so lacking in scientific merit that it really removes disability beneficiaries whose mental and physical impairments are so severe that they cannot keep up with SSA’s paperwork requirements.

Thus, not only did the appropriators underfund SSA, they in effect directed SSA to waste 1 in every 8 dollars that were provided. The Biden administration needs to mitigate the effects of this mistake and use some of the CDR and redetermination funding to provide additional layers in the process to ensure disability beneficiaries understand their options and appeal rights.

It is an open question as to whether OMB played an active enough role in securing a sufficient appropriation for SSA. Regardless, the appropriators may have set up President Biden for a very public failure.

SSA is set to reopen its field offices, which have been closed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those offices serve a stunning 43 million Americans annually, and the logistical difficulties of bringing the offices back are enormous. The reopening will coincide with a crushing pent-up demand for services.

Tens of millions of Americans are about to encounter the real-world consequences of understaffing and underfunding a federal agency.

This will not improve the president’s standing with key groups, such as independents, who often simply want the government to work.

President Biden vocally pledged to improve public service and will have to make the best of being dealt a poor hand. Some possible steps include prioritizing SSA’s funding in the FY 2023 President’s Budget and looking for some opportunities to use supplemental funding packages to boost SSA’s resources. The prospects of getting additional funding for SSA may be limited, but the coming hardships caused by the funding bill require attention from the administration. 

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.

Tags Agencies of the United States government budget cuts Federal budget Foreign Aid Joe Biden Russian invasion of Ukraine Social Security Social Security Administration Supplemental Security Income

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