President Joe Biden’s budget proposal for the 2024 fiscal year includes $15.5 billion for the Social Security Administration (SSA), a 10 percent increase for the agency as it struggles to reverse a crisis in customer service.
The White House released the spending blueprint March 9, a month after the SSA acknowledged in a report to Congress that service delivery is unlikely to improve this year despite its 6 percent funding boost over 2022.
The Biden proposal would add $1.4 billion to the SSA’s current, $14.1 billion budget and “invests in staff, information technology, and other improvements,” the White House says. “These funds would improve customer service at Social Security Administration field offices, state disability determination services, and teleservice centers for retirees, individuals with disabilities and their families.”
The 2024 federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
The SSA pays monthly retirement, survivor, disability and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits to nearly 71 million people and processes more than 8 million new claims for benefits and Medicare enrollment a year.
“The broad and critical nature of our programs drives our request for the resources necessary to improve our service to the public,” SSA acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi says in a statement.
Key measurements of customer service, such as hold times for calls to Social Security’s national phone line and waits for decisions in disability claims, have worsened sharply in recent years as SSA staffing hit a 25-year low. The agency shed some 4,000 jobs — about 7 percent of its workforce — during a hiring freeze that started shortly before the pandemic and was lifted in October.
The processing time for disability benefit applications has increased from a little more than four months at the start of the pandemic to more than seven months in January, according to SSA data, and the agency says it will likely remain around that level through this year. The average wait to get a hearing for appeals of disability decisions has stretched to 15 months, up from 11 months last year.
The 2024 budget plan “supports increased staffing levels from FY [fiscal year] 2023, allowing us to process about a half million more disability cases in FY 2024 than we completed in FY 2022 and significantly reduce wait times for those decisions,” the SSA says.
Callers to Social Security’s national toll-free number (800-772-1213) waited an average of 39 minutes for someone to answer in January, more than triple the hold time three years earlier.
“AARP and our members have been fighting for years to improve customer service at SSA,” says Tom Nicholls, an AARP government affairs director specializing in Social Security. “We are happy to see the additional funding included in the president’s budget, which could go a long way towards improving service at the agency.”
Andy Markowitz covers Social Security and retirement for AARP. He is a former editor of the Prague Post and Baltimore City Paper.