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AARP Urges Congress to Boost Social Security Administration Funding

More resources would help the agency address a crisis in customer service

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Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As the deadline approaches for Congress to approve federal government spending for the coming year, AARP is calling on lawmakers to increase funding for the Social Security Administration (SSA) to help stem a customer service crisis that is delaying the delivery of timely services to older adults and people with disabilities.

Social Security “has been plagued with serious customer service deficiencies occasioned by underfunding,” Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer, says in a Dec. 2 letter to leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. She urges the lame-duck session of Congress to fully fund the White House’s $14.8 billion budget request for the SSA to help address, among other things, long wait times for consumers calling the agency for help and record waits for decisions on disability applications.

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The president's fiscal year 2023 budget request would increase SSA funding by $1.4 billion, most of which would go toward boosting payroll, improving information technology and expanding digital services.

“Funding for the Social Security Administration has steadily eroded over the past decade, even though the number of people served has grown dramatically,” says David Certner, legislative policy director for AARP. “Without adequate funding, processing and wait times will continue to skyrocket, and beneficiaries will not get timely access to the services and benefits they need.”

Long waits, unanswered calls

If Congress does not increase current funding levels, the SSA says it will be severely hamstrung in its ability to overcome years of underfunding and staff attrition that have eroded service delivery, especially during the pandemic.

Recent Social Security data illustrates the extent of the customer service crisis.

  • Callers to the SSA’s national customer service line, 800-772-1213, wait an average of 34 minutes for someone to answer — more than double the hold time a year ago and 10 times longer than it took a decade ago.
  • Almost one-third of calls to local Social Security field offices go unanswered, up from one-fifth in 2021. More than 8 percent of callers get busy signals, compared to less than 5 percent a year ago.
  • In November 2022, the average processing time for a decision on an initial application for disability benefits was 204 days, nearly 90 days longer than it took five years earlier.
  • Disability applicants appealing denied claims are waiting more than a year, on average, to get a hearing on their case. In a dozen of the SSA’s 168 hearing offices, it takes more than a year and a half.

The consequences of such delays can be devastating: On average, more than 10,000 people die each year while waiting for a decision on their disability claim.

Years of deterioration

Since 2010, the SSA’s operating budget has decreased by 17 percent when adjusted for inflation, while the number of beneficiaries it serves has grown by 11 million, or 21 percent, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C., research institute. Staffing is at a 25-year low after Social Security shed 4,000 jobs, 7 percent of its workforce, during a pandemic hiring freeze.

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Social Security has acknowledged the depth of the problem, calling service levels “unacceptable” in a blog entry in November.

“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,” Jeff Nesbit, SSA deputy commissioner for communications, says in the Nov. 22 post.

Under the alternative — maintaining current funding levels — the agency would have to resume a hiring freeze, cut overtime and reduce IT investments, Nesbit says.

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