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Have A Question for Social Security? Be Prepared to Wait…and Wait…

Social Security has closed 67 field offices since fiscal 2010 in rural and urban areas alike. For the public, the cuts have meant less access to field offices, and ballooning wait times in the remaining 1,229 offices and on the agency’s toll-free line.

If you need an answer in a hurry about a Social Security matter, you might have to have a lot of patience, says The New York Times in the article “Have a Social Security Question? Please Hold.” Part of the problem has been an eight-year reduction in the agency’s operating budget. Congress has reduced the agency’s budget by 9% in inflation-adjusted terms since 2010. This is happening at the same time that the number of Americans receiving benefits from Social Security is on the rise—by 17%, according to Social Security Administration data.

The good news is that the agency’s budget is now increasing, and it hopes to start decreasing the backlogs. It is hard at work modernizing the agency’s use of technology, addressing customer service needs and enhancing online options for the public.

Congress finally started to reverse the downward funding trend in March. Lawmakers ignored the administration’s request for a small increase in fiscal 2018 and instead, raised the administrative budget by 4.6%—$480 million. In September, Congress ignored the administration’s request for a $400 million cut and instead, gave Social Security a $40 million increase.

That means that in fiscal 2019, the agency’s operating budget will be $11.1 billion.

This government agency touches the lives of millions of Americans and its ability to function efficiently is extremely important to people of all ages. In fiscal 2019, the Social Security Administration projects payments of $1.1 trillion to about 69 million recipients of disability benefits, Supplemental Security, Income and Social Security retirement benefits. 

As for calls from Americans with questions, Social Security reports that it will serve about 43 million visitors at the remaining field offices and handle as many as 75 million calls to the toll-free telephone line.

As the nation ages, those numbers are only going to increase. Over the coming decades, the agency expects the number of beneficiaries to soar by 45%.

The backlog in appeals cases for Social Security Disability Insurance has grown in the years that the agency’s budget was being cut. The average time to wait for a hearing decision on an appeal in fiscal 2018 was 591 days. That was 39% longer than in 2010, although a slight decrease from 2017.

The service problems also affect people who are simply trying to take care of their Social Security business. The average wait time to see a claims agent was 26 minutes. However, many Social Security offices have people coming in early and lining up to wait to see a representative. Sometimes, those lines wrap around the buildings. 

Every year the Social Security Administration is asked to do more with less, beneficiaries suffer.

Reference: The New York Times (Nov. 21, 2018) “Have a Social Security Question? Please Hold”

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