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Soon, you can expect better service from Social Security—but there’s a catch

The new commissioner is making changes, but it will take time to dig out of some backlogs

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By Mark Miller


Everett Collection

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org .

If you’ve ever experienced a long wait to get help from the Social Security Administration, the agency has some good news for you: the pace is about to pick up a bit.

Repeated cuts to the agency’s administrative budget over the past decade by Congress have forced the closing of field offices, staff cuts and long delays on Social Security’s toll-free line — and an enormous backlog of people waiting for appeal hearings on disability insurance claims.

Last week, Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul announced two steps that should help make a dent in the problem:

Social Security will reopen field offices nationwide on Wednesday afternoons starting on January 8, restoring closings that were put in place in 2012.

The agency also will hire 1,100 new employees to provide service on the national 800 number (1-800-772-1213) and in its processing centers, where paperwork is handled. The agency is currently bringing on board 100 new processing center employees and approximately 500 new teleservice representatives for the 800 number. Some additional hires will be made later in 2020.

That’s the good news. What’s less clear is how Social Security will fund this expansion, since the agency is not receiving additional funds from Congress to handle it.

On my RetirementRevised.com podcast , I speak with one of the nation’s top experts on the administrative workings of Social Security: Kathleen Romig, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank.

What’s behind the Social Security customer service crisis

Congress has cut Social Security’s budget nearly 11% between 2010 and 2019, after adjusting for inflation. During the same time, the number of Social Security beneficiaries grew by more than 16%.

Meanwhile, Social Security is operating under Congressional action that only allows for flat funding. The House’s 2020 appropriations bill would barely allow it to keep up with inflation, while the Senate bill would effectively cut the agency’s budget.

Related: Social Security reform proposal: Why do estimates of the 2100 Act’s impact differ?

Saul is new at the Social Security Administration — sworn in June 17, 2019 — and is the first confirmed commissioner since 2013. Everyone who served in the last six years had “acting” in front of their title.

“I’m happy that the new commissioner understands how important customer service is and how we need to invest in it,” says Romig. “But I’m also puzzled about where he’s getting the money to make these hires.”

Saul has the discretion to shift funds around, but Romig and other Social Security experts worry that this could turn out to be a case of robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul.

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