The non-partisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reports this week that budget cuts have forced SSA to cut drastically services, and even impose a hiring freeze in 2011 in the face of increasing applications. This led to a deterioration in SSA phone service that the agency has only partially reversed. In 2016, the average caller to SSA’s 800 number can expect to spend over 15 minutes on hold, and nearly 10 percent of callers will receive busy signals.
The cuts also affected SSA field offices, where people can apply for benefits, replace lost Social Security cards, or report name changes (due to a marriage or divorce, for example). SSA has closed 64 field offices and 533 mobile offices since 2010 and reduced hours at remaining offices. Before the budget cuts, more than 90 percent of applicants could schedule an appointment within three weeks; by 2015, fewer than half could.
During the Great Recession, the number of Disability Insurance (DI) applications — and rejections — rose dramatically, yet SSA lacked the resources to keep up with appeals from rejected applicants. The average wait for a hearing rose from 360 to 540 days between 2011 and 2016. The number of applicants awaiting a hearing has risen to over 1 million, an all-time high.
Lack of adequate staff forced SSA to delay critical behind-the-scenes work necessary to pay benefits accurately and on time, such as awarding widows’ benefits when their spouses die and adjusting benefits for early retirees and disabled workers with earnings. Beneficiaries wait an average of four months for SSA to complete these tasks.
One of the nation’s most popular and effective programs, Social Security provides a foundation of income on which workers can build for their retirement, as well as valuable social insurance protection both to workers who become disabled and to families whose breadwinner dies. Beneficiaries earn their Social Security benefits by working and paying Social Security payroll-tax contributions. Over 59 million retirees, disabled workers, survivors, and their families receive these benefits each year — a number that has grown by 6 million in just the past five years.