Social Security in ‘a full blown crisis,’: Advocates and recipients say the program needs help
Sen. Bob Casey held a hearing in Pennsylvania where stakeholders testified about long wait times, confusing applications, daunting paperwork, and exhausted staff that have stretched the crucially important government program to its limits
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey heard testimony during a field hearing for the Senate Special Committee on Aging in Phoenixville, Pa. Oct. 16, 2023 (Capital-Star photo)
PHOENIXVILLE, Pa. — At a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging this week, employees of the Social Security Administration (SSA) and recipients of Social Security benefits testified about the impact of continued budget cuts at the agency.
Along with low morale and high turnover among overworked staff, recipients regularly endure long wait times — on the phone and in person — for assistance, daunting paperwork, and confusing instructions, all for some of the most vulnerable beneficiaries of the nation’s largest social service program.
The hearing, convened by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) in his role as chair of the Aging Committee, included testimony from an SSA worker, a policy expert, a community legal services representative, and a mother and daughter from York, for whom Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a lifeline, but one that requires constant vigilance and perseverance through often-baffling government bureaucracy. Social Security is funded by a dedicated payroll tax that workers pay into throughout their working lives. The SSA also administers and oversees the SSI program, which provides monthly payments for low-income people with disabilities and older adults.
“I want to respectfully submit that Social Security is facing a full-blown crisis,” Jessica LaPointe, president of Council 220 of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) testified. AFGE represents 42,000 SAA employees. “It’s one that is creating great hardship for workers and the millions of recipients that we have taken an oath to serve. This is an untenable situation that has been festering for years.”
Long wait times, exhausted workers
She said since 2018, the length of time people wait to get a decision on their application for SSI benefits has gone from three months to seven months. The average wait time for a phone call to SSA’s 800 number has gone from 20 minutes to 40 minutes. And, the phone system is so antiquated that there’s no automated feature to tell a caller how long they’ll be waiting, LaPointe said, so a lot of people just give up.
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LaPointe also works as a bilingual claims specialist in SSA’s Madison, Wisconsin field office. She noted that in 2011, the very large generation of baby boomers began reaching retirement age at the rate of 10,000 people per day, and will continue at that pace until 2030, putting even greater strain on SSA staff and resources.
But according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan think tank, Congress reduced SSA’s operating budget by 17% between 2010 and 2022, when adjusted for inflation. The House Republican Study Committee, a caucus with more than 100 members, recently proposed raising SSA’s qualifying age to 69, meaning people would wait longer to collect full benefits, and pushed the oft-attempted idea of privatizing parts of the SSA to be more efficient.
Legislating change to Social Security one bill at a time
“Social Security is strikingly superior to its private sector counterparts,” Nancy Altman, president of advocacy organization Social Security Works, testified. “Its one shortcoming is that its benefits are inadequately low.” But people like Social Security, she added, regardless of political party, and attempts by lawmakers to repeal or reduce it are generally unpopular.
Altman said several pieces of legislation Casey has proposed would make significant, much-needed updates to parts of SSA’s rules that are outdated or arbitrary.
The Surviving Widow(er) Income Fair Treatment, or SWIFT Act, which Casey introduced in September would repeal the rules that prevent widows and widowers from being able to claim full survivor benefits under some arcane circumstances. The Stop the Wait Act would repeal the five-month waiting period that exists before someone can receive Social Security Disability Insurance or SSDI.
And Casey has proposed further expansion to the ABLE Act, of which he was the prime sponsor in 2013, to provide federal matching funds for people who participate in the special savings accounts. Last year, Casey’s ABLE Adjustment Act, which lowered the qualifying age for some ABLE account holders, was passed; it takes effect in 2026. All three pieces of legislation were introduced this year, and last year, but none is close to receiving a floor vote in the Senate.
“But benefits are useless if you can’t claim them,” Altman added. “Congress should allow the Social Security Administration to spend more of its accumulated surplus to restore the world-class service it once provided, and the American people both deserve and have paid for.”
Casey has been chipping away, using legislation, at some of the barriers that keep people from receiving full Social Security benefits, perhaps the best-known of which is the aforementioned ABLE Act. This law allows people with disabilities who are otherwise eligible for SSI benefits to save money in a special tax-free savings accounts, and not have the amount in their ABLE account counted against their qualifying income.
Current SSI rules restrict recipients from having more than $2,000 a month in income, which is a constant battle, according to Rowena, the mom from York who testified on behalf of her daughter Hannah, who has cognitive and physical disabilities. Hannah holds a job, but not one that provides health insurance, and she has to keep her income under $2,000 for the month, and must regularly report her income to SSA.
“These SSI benefits provide us scaffold, which enables her to sustain employment and move independently,” Rowena, who asked that only her first name be used, said. “If her income drops due to a medical issue — which indeed happened a year ago, when she had COVID and could not return to work for two weeks —the funds she received from SSI were her safety net, and kept her bills paid when she didn’t receive a paycheck.”
But even the slightest income fluctuation could disqualify Hannah from receiving benefits, such as receiving a COVID stimulus check. And navigating the SSA website and system is a time-consuming process that doesn’t always produce the needed answers or assistance in a timely way, Rowena added.
The very act of applying for benefits is itself overwhelming for many people, said Jennifer Burdick, who works with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, where she serves as a divisional supervising attorney, representing and advocating for clients having issues accessing their SSI benefits.
There’s no way to apply online for SSI benefits, so applicants have to get an appointment for an interview, either by calling or visiting an SSA field office. Some may be able to use an online scheduling tool to start that application. “We help advise on filling out all the forms because there are a lot of sheets to fill out. This seems like a really small thing but it’s actually a really, really big barrier,” Burdick said.
If an applicant encounters a question they don’t know the answer to, like the first time they visited their current physician (a real question on one application), it stops them in their tracks, she said. “As somebody who’s been representing people for a long time, I know that they don’t need to answer every question perfectly, it’s OK to write ‘I don’t know.’ But not everyone would know that.”
Casey called that scenario “the worst of all worlds,” if an eligible person doesn’t get the help they need “when you have a program that is so beneficial to people’s lives.” He added that his office fields calls from people dealing with the Social Security application process, and encouraged Pennsylvanians to contact them if they encounter problems.
Republican efforts to privatize Social Security
There was a point in the not-too-distant past when Social Security was considered a political third rail, that is, no politician would dare to touch it, much less threaten to reduce it or otherwise tamper with it. That’s not the case in the current political climate.
“I would attribute it to changes on the other side of the aisle,” Casey told the Capital-Star in an interview after the hearing. “You’ve got a party that’s dominated by the extreme right, and I’m not just talking about since 2016, I’m talking about long before that.”
Casey said the shift toward targeting the SSA via budget cuts is part of a larger Republican agenda of privatization that has been building since the early 2000s, when then-President George W. Bush tried (and failed) to privatize Social Security.
He said Democrats have been able to stop some of the more draconian cuts proposed for Social Security over the last few years. “But I think what we can’t do on our side is sit around and wait for those horrific moments for people that depend on the federal government,” Casey said. “We’ve got to continue to make the point about what extreme cuts will mean.”
This article was updated 10:59 a.m. Oct. 19, 2023 to add a link to an online tool for starting the scheduling process for an SSA application.
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