Social Security Warns Public of Declining Service if Congress Doesn’t Increase Funding
The agency that administers Americans’ retirement and disability benefits employed an unusual tactic in its effort to lobby lawmakers to approve President Biden’s proposed $14.8 billion budget for the Social Security Administration.
The Social Security Administration last week warned the public that unless Congress approves a $1.4 billion increase in funding for the agency in fiscal 2023, the agency’s customer service will continue to deteriorate.
Over the last decade, Social Security has seen its workload increase, with the number of beneficiaries increasing 21% between 2010 and 2021, while its budget and workforce has dwindled. Over the same time period, the agency’s budget has fallen by 13%, when accounting for inflation, while its workforce has declined by 7%, or roughly 4,000 employees, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Congress passed a continuing resolution in September as a stopgap to keep the government open until Dec. 16, it included $400 million in emergency funding for Social Security to cover cost increases and support the agency’s ongoing hiring efforts.
But in a rare blog post on the agency’s financial situation, Social Security Deputy Commissioner for Communications Jeff Nesbit wrote that the agency will need far more funding to maintain an acceptable level of service. Although federal agencies frequently issue warnings about the dangers of inadequate appropriations or short-term funding deals on their ability to fulfill their mission, that typically occurs via letters to lawmakers or testimony before Congress.
“Congress provided us with $400 million, which provides enough funding to cover our fixed cost increases only through December, overtime at fiscal 2022 levels and continuous hiring at the start of fiscal 2023,” Nesbit wrote. “However, it is not enough to cover the full year fixed cost increases or to maintain the hiring and overtime levels beyond December to improve service. On the other hand, the fiscal 2023 president’s budget request of $14.8 billion for SSA—a $1.4 billion increase over our fiscal 2022 enacted level of funding—would allow us to improve customer service and offer the service experience you deserve.”
Social Security has been under a microscope over the last year, due to service delivery difficulties stemming from the pandemic. Although some Republican lawmakers have blamed telework for long lines at agency field offices throughout the country, employee groups and advocates have argued that delays there and in the disability application process are in fact due to chronic underfunding and understaffing. Last month, officials with the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents thousands of Social Security employees, urged Congress to approve $16.5 billion in funding for the agency, which would amount to a $1.7 billion increase over the Biden administration’s budget proposal.
In his blog post, Nesbit acknowledged the toll increasing workloads have had on his agency’s workforce.
“We are also experiencing historically high levels of employees leaving the agency, because employees are carrying unreasonable workloads given the staffing shortage,” he wrote. “As we lose employees, our service further deteriorates. You feel the effects of our staffing shortage. You are waiting an unacceptable average of over six months for a decision on an initial disability claim and over 30 minutes to speak to a representative on our national 800 number.”
The agency warned that unless Congress approves the president’s budget request for Social Security, officials will have to take a series of steps that will continue the downward service trend, including hiring freezes, overtime cuts, and cutting funding for already overdue IT investments.
“It is critical that we have the resources to restore staffing losses and continue our important IT investments or face years of deteriorating services that you will not and should not accept,” Nesbit wrote. “We must be able to provide timely and quality service to everyone who depends on us.”