There has been a Social Security field office in every community since they opened their doors more than 80 years ago. Social Security’s more than 1,200 field offices, like our post offices and public libraries, provide us with essential services. Previously, they saw an average of 175,000 visitors per day, which works out to more than 40 million visitors per year.
As a result, the recent announcement by the Social Security Administration (SSA) that field offices will reopen to the public by the end of March is very heartening news. And for this reason, Congress must allow SSA to spend the necessary funds to not only reopen but also expand field offices.
Social Security field offices are frequented by Americans during times of transition, such as the death of a loved one or the beginning of one’s retirement after decades of work. When people come to these offices, they’re looking for assistance and information about the Social Security system, which they’ve paid into for their entire working lives.
Outstanding customer service has long been a hallmark of Social Security field offices. But Republicans in Congress have sabotaged Social Security offices for the last decade, with disastrous results.
The SSA’s operating budget decreased by 13% between 2010 and 2021, despite a 22% increase in the number of beneficiaries. Social Security’s $2.9 trillion surpluses are more than enough to cover operating costs without adding to the federal debt, so Congress imposed these budget cuts.
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Despite the best efforts of hard-working staff, those draconian budget cuts resulted in an inevitable decline in service. SSA closed 67 field offices across the country between 2010 and 2018. The hours of operation and the number of employees at the other offices were both reduced. Nearly 110,000 Americans lost their lives as a result of the long waits for Social Security disability hearings, which could take up to a year or more.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, customer service at Social Security was in this state. To save money and resources, most field offices have been closed since nearly two years ago.
It was the right thing to do, but it has made it even more difficult for Americans to claim their earned benefits because of this new policy. As a result, the notion that field offices are no longer necessary due to the convenience of conducting business entirely online has been disproven.
As a matter of fact, many Americans do not have access to a computer or prefer to claim their benefits in person rather than online. As well, this isn’t just a problem for the elderly population. Sixty-one percent of Americans want to apply for their earned benefits by phone or in person at a local field office.
Those who indicated a desire to visit a branch office in person in the greatest number? Those between the ages of 18 and 29! 86% of Americans want more or the same number of local field offices in the future, not less.
The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that field offices are essential. Because of the difficulty in submitting a claim without in-person assistance provided by field offices, disability benefits claims dropped significantly during the pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, the research found that closing a field office reduced disability applications by 10% and resulted in an even larger reduction in disability awards — a whopping 16% reduction in disability awards.
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There will be a backlog of disability claims from people who were unable to claim their benefits during the pandemic, as well as long-term COVID patients when field offices reopen. The provision of survivors’ benefits to the families of pandemic victims must also be planned for by field offices. Moreover, 10,000 baby boomers retire every single day.
Field offices should brace themselves for increased workload in the years to come as a result of all of these factors. This increased workload necessitates that Congress allow the Social Security Administration (SSA) to spend the funds necessary to safely reopen offices and repair the damage that was inflicted by the pandemic in the decade prior to it.
Opening new locations and expanding the workforce is therefore necessary. SSA had a workforce of 81,000 people in 1985. As a result, there are now less than 60,000 people employed by the Social Security Administration—a 26% decrease! In order for newly reopened field offices to fully serve the community, this must change immediately.
Time is money, as the saying goes. Americans should not have to wait for hours in a crowded field office or for weeks to get an appointment with a health care provider. Customers in the United States deserve and have paid for first-class service.
The operating budget of the Social Security Administration is funded by the $2.9 trillion accumulated surplus of Social Security. Workers and employers both contribute to this surplus through their paychecks.
It’s critical to know that Congress isn’t funding the Social Security Administration in any way. Instead, it restricts how much of Social Security’s own funds the SSA can spend on administration through an annual “limitation on administrative expenses” (LAE).
These restrictions, imposed by Congress, serve no useful purpose. Private-sector retirement plans and insurance companies have never been able to compete with the efficiency of Social Security.
In fact, less than one cent of every dollar is allocated to administrative costs. Pensions, disability, and surviving spouse benefits account for the vast majority (99%) of all income earned by Americans.
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By slashing Social Security’s administrative budget, Republicans were attempting to erode public confidence in and support for the program — the proverbial death by a thousand small wounds. Democratic control of both House and Senate necessitates swift action to reverse these harmful cuts.
SSA must be allowed to spend the money it needs to reopen field offices and expand its workforce as Democrats negotiate a new funding package for the government that expires in a few weeks.
It would be a major victory for the Biden administration if Congress agreed to that. First-class customer service for America’s most popular government program, Social Security, was restored by President Biden during his time in office.