I sure am glad President Trump isn’t considering me to be the new head of the Social Security Administration. What a thankless job! As about 10,000 people retire every day, and as thousands more file for disability and survivor benefits, the agency’s workforce keeps dwindling. And it’s going to get worse.
Trump considers it his mandate to shrink the size of government. Of course, almost every Republican legislator thinks the same. And since they are now running the country, the federal government, including SSA, is going to shrink.
I’ve made this following point many times in this column. So many Americans claim they want smaller government. But if my emails are any indication, what they really mean is they want smaller government for everyone else — but not for themselves.
Here is an excerpt from an email I got yesterday. “I cannot believe that Obama changed a law that would deny me the right to claim Social Security benefits off of my wife’s account while letting my own retirement continue to grow. I just hope Trump corrects this travesty while he’s also kicking all those deadbeats off of the disability, welfare and food stamp rolls!” See what I mean? “More for me, but less for all those other people” is the mantra for so many Americans.
President Obama didn’t change a law. But his administration did appropriately close a loophole that allowed mostly wealthy senior citizens to claim dependent spousal benefits on their husband’s or wife’s Social Security record while they delayed taking their own benefits until age 70, at which point they would get a 32 percent bonus added to their retirement checks.
I have written many times how allowing someone who had a job and qualifies for a Social Security pension to claim benefits as a “dependent” husband or wife on a spouse’s Social Security account was a mockery of the basic tenets of Social Security. And it was costing the federal government tens of billions of dollars per year in extra payouts.
If this guy really thinks that Trump is going to reopen that loophole while he’s “kicking all those deadbeats” off the government dole — well, I’ve got a wall across the southern border of this country that I’d like to sell him!
OK, enough smarminess on my part. But my point still holds. So many people (oftentimes hypocritically) think the government is too big and needs to be shrunk in size. Well, it’s happening.
The Trump administration has ordered the Social Security Administration (and almost all other government agencies) to downsize. At SSA, early retirement incentives have been offered to about 15,000 employees. That’s one-fourth of the agency’s total workforce of 62,000.
That’s going to mean the closure of more local Social Security offices, which means fewer people available to answer the thousands of calls the agency gets every day. By far, the No. 1 complaint I hear from my readers is the overly long wait times when they call SSA’s 800 number. Well, all I can say is: Get used to it.
And the disability side is an even bleaker tale. It takes SSA almost three months to process a claim for disability benefits. About 65 percent of those first-time claims are denied, which means there are hundreds of thousands of people who file appeals. Currently, more than 1 million people are waiting for a disability hearing in front of an SSA judge. The average wait time for that hearing is more than 600 days. Those numbers can only get worse as SSA’s budget and workforce drop.
And if you think that these Trump cuts will merely be reversing all the growth in government that happened during the Obama years, you’re wrong. Between 2010 and 2016, SSA’s budget dropped by more than 10 percent. During that same period, its beneficiary base went up by 12 percent and its fixed costs increased by about $300 million each year.
And if you also think that SSA, just like any other government agency, has a bloated administrative budget that could stand some trimming, well, think again. Out of every dollar collected in Social Security taxes, less than one penny goes toward running the agency that maintains earnings records for almost every American and pays monthly benefits to 1 out of every 6 Americans.
When I started working for SSA in the early 1970s, I was one of about 82,000 relatively happy and proud employees working for one of the best-run government agencies. SSA consistently won awards for public service and administrative responsibility. As one of my co-workers always said, “SSA is an honorable institution engaged in a noble public purpose.”
Local Social Security offices were well-run, clean and efficient. They were pleasant places to work and pleasant places to visit. I was able to take the time to not only explain complicated Social Security but also to simply chat with people and ask them how their days were going. I always kept in the back of my mind that even though this was just an everyday job for me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the customer I was dealing with.
Unfortunately, now it’s a different world and a different SSA. With reduced staff and resources, it’s all about numbers, efficiency and time management. You must call to make an appointment and then wait weeks for that appointment. Then when you get to the office, it’s “take a number and sit down and wait until you are called.” And sadly, the SSA rep you finally get to talk to has neither the training nor the time that I had.
I’m going to stop. I know these are the musings of an aging codger pining for “the good old days” that are simply gone. And certainly they are never going to come back if we continue to cut the budget and gut the staff of an “honorable institution engaged in a noble public purpose.”
Contact Tom Margenau at firstname.lastname@example.org