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What Happens to Social Security in a Government Shutdown?

Budget deal or no, monthly benefits would still be paid


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Spending legislation passed by Congress March 22 and signed by President Joe Biden the following day will keep the part of government that includes the Social Security Administration (SSA) operating through Sept. 30, ending the threat of a government shutdown for at least the current fiscal year. 

But even if a future Capitol Hill budget wrangle shuts down the government, Social Security recipients would continue getting their monthly payments.

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In federal parlance, Social Security benefits are “mandatory spending.” They have a dedicated, permanent funding source (primarily, the payroll taxes most of us pay on our work income) and are not affected by the federal appropriations process.

The SSA is not immune from the shutdown threat, however. Its administrative budget is subject to congressional approval, with lawmakers determining how much of Social Security’s revenue can go toward operating expenses, such as processing benefit applications, renting space for offices and paying employees’ salaries.

Contingency plan

The shutdown threat arose from Congress’ inability for nearly six months to enact a federal budget for the 2024 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2023. Lawmakers kept the government running by passing a series of stopgap measures, called continuing resolutions, that maintained funding for federal agencies at 2023 levels, each time extending the deadline to formally adopt a 2024 budget.

Biden signed legislation March 9 to fund one set of federal agencies through the end of the fiscal year. The latest measure does so for the remaining agencies, including the SSA, which would have shut down March 23 absent a budget deal.

The SSA has a detailed contingency plan, issued in August 2023, laying out how it would operate in the event of. a shutdown. Here’s what that plan says about various Social Security functions and services.

Benefit payments

“We will continue activities critical to our direct-service operations and those needed to ensure accurate and timely payment of benefits,” the SSA plan states.

Payroll tax revenue will continue to go into the trust funds that supply money to cover retirement benefits, survivor benefits, family benefits and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and the SSA says it has legal authority to process payments even if congressional appropriations lapse.

The SSA also administers Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a safety-net benefit for people with very low incomes who are visually impaired, have a disability or are age 65 and older. While SSI is paid out of general government revenues, the SSA says it has enough previously appropriated money to continue making SSI payments for the next three months, far longer than any past shutdown.

Services that won’t be affected

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While some federal offices would furlough most of their workers and effectively go dark in the event of a shutdown, the SSA would initially keep about 85 percent of its approximately 62,000 workers on the job to maintain essential functions and services. Along with paying benefits, these include:

Services that would be affected

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These are among the Social Security services and activities that would be suspended in the event of a shutdown, according to the SSA plan:

The SSA says it would “reevaluate” the furlough figures if a shutdown goes on for more than five days, after which more employees could be sent home, as happened in past shutdowns. But even in such a case, the agency says it would retain workers “critical to our direct-service operations.”

“Generally, applicants and beneficiaries should experience the same service as usual,” says Kathleen Romig, director of Social Security and disability policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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