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Report: Social Security 'Inundated'

You may face delays as agency juggles more work with less staff

En español | Social Security is supposed to be a beacon of predictability — there when you need it. But a new report from the agency's inspector general paints a grim picture of an agency that's underwater on practically every front.

Central to the problems are a soaring number of claims for benefits, leaving the Social Security Administration "inundated," the report says.

The inspector general addressed day-to-day operational challenges at one of the country's largest public institutions — it paid benefits to more than 57 million people in 2009.

Among the problems cited:

  • Disability claims are up close to 30 percent over two years ago.

  • The onslaught of aging boomers means the agency is expecting an average of 10,000 retirement claims a day for the next 20 years.

  • The agency's own workforce is aging just as the country's is. Fifty percent of Social Security staffers — including 66 percent of the agency's supervisors — will themselves be eligible to retire by 2018. As a result, Social Security is ill prepared for its heyday to arrive, concludes the inspector general's report, which was released in December.

  • The agency's computer data center — which hails from the 1970s — is bursting at the seams, expected to max out by 2012. Yet a new system is not likely to be up and running before 2015.

Feeling the pinch

Already some beneficiaries are feeling the pinch. Years-long waits as disability claims are processed are not uncommon. And even people with simple needs are reporting long wait times at Social Security offices and lengthy busy signals when they phone the agency, says Gerald McIntyre, directing attorney at the National Senior Citizens Law Center in Los Angeles.

If you're looking ahead to making an unusual claim such as for disability or dependent support, "you should be concerned," says McIntyre. "The Social Security Administration has not really had a sufficient budget in quite some time, and that grows more serious as time goes on." But the agency is generally keeping current with routine claims for retirement benefits.

"SSA concedes it is at a critical time," the inspector general's report states. "Many factors challenge the agency, including shifting demographics, growing workloads, changing customer expectations and an aging workforce."

The agency is trying to address the trouble areas identified by the report through increased hiring, better service for consumers online and moving to update its technology. But whether the agency can act fast enough is the real question, outside experts say, and that likely will come down to money.

Inbox stacked with papers

— Corbis

A complicated mess

"It's a very complicated mess," says Tim Gearan, a senior legislative representative at AARP. "The single biggest problem is underfunding by Congress."

Some progress was made when Congress authorized funds in the economic recovery package in 2009 to help eliminate the backlog of disability claims, Gearan says. That legislation also included money to replace Social Security's aging data center.

Nonetheless, Social Security staffers are stretched to the limit, trying to do the most they can with the limited resources they have, Gearan says. There's pressure in Congress to cut the agency's budget further. Couple that with increasing demand placed on the agency and something is likely going to give.

"It's an administrative nightmare," Gearan says. "You've got fewer people and more work to do. I would hate to take a survey on the morale over at the Social Security Administration."

Michelle Diament is a frequent contributor to the AARP Bulletin.

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