Republicans Are Killing Social Security One Tiny Service Cut at a Time

Torn-up Social Security card.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

Republicans have made no secret of their long-standing desire to destroy Social Security as we know it. Indeed, Sen. Marco Rubio revealed just before Christmas that congressional Republicans plan to go after Social Security yet again.

Their strategy includes both direct and stealthier efforts—death by a thousand cuts to services. And Republicans are poised to plunge the knife in again soon.

Republican politicians are making it increasingly difficult, time-consuming, and aggravating to access our earned Social Security benefits, in the hope of undermining support for the extremely popular program, and eventually ending it as we know it.

The funds that workers contribute to Social Security do not just pay for monthly benefits. Those contributions also fund Social Security’s administrative expenses. The local Social Security offices around the country and other personnel and services are designed to ensure that Americans receive their earned benefits in an accurate, timely, and convenient manner. Those personnel and services are paid for with Social Security contributions.

Social Security is extremely efficiently administered. Out of every dollar spent, just seven-tenths of a penny goes to administration. That is strikingly more efficient than counterpart private sector programs. Moreover, Social Security’s administrative costs, like its benefits, do not add even a penny to the deficit.

Social Security has a $2.8 trillion accumulated — and growing — surplus. In 2016 alone, it ran a surplus of $35.2 billion. As for those who say Social Security is unaffordable, the most recent Social Security board of trustees report projects a modest shortfall still decades away that could easily be eliminated by requiring the wealthiest among us to pay their fair share. Congress does not appropriate funds for Social Security’s administration. Rather, it limits how much of that huge surplus and Social Security’s dedicated revenue the Social Security Administration can use for the costs of administering the program.

For years, Congress has drastically limited how much of Social Security’s revenue and surplus SSA can spend. Since 2010, when Republicans took back control of the House of Representatives, SSA’s operating budget has been cut by 11 percent. For 2018, the Republican-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee has proposed limiting Social Security’s administrative budget even more, this time, by another $492 million—4 percent of SSA’s operating budget, on top of an already enacted 16 percent cut, after inflation, since 2010.

The increasing squeeze comes as SSA’s workload continues to grow. The first members of the baby boom generation turned 65 in 2011, and about 10,000 boomers retire daily. Younger members of that generation are in their 50s and early 60s, the prime years for filing Social Security disability claims. Moreover, SSA has unavoidable expenses, including rent, heat, and telephones, whose costs go up around $400 million each year. Consequently, even a level budget is a sizeable cut.

The ongoing limits Congress is imposing on SSA can be felt in many ways. More than 1 million people are awaiting hearings to determine whether they qualify for Social Security disability benefits. Currently, the wait time for a hearing is more than 600 days. In just the past two years, 18,701 workers have died waiting for a disability decision. That is to say, waiting to find out if they were eligible to receive benefits that they earned with every past paycheck. Benefits that could have saved lives, prevented bankruptcies, and stopped the loss of homes, thus preventing homelessness.

At a time when the population is aging, SSA has had to close 64 district offices and more than 500 mobile field offices. Offices still open have had to reduce their hours. SSA’s workforce has declined by 6 percent—with five states having lost 15 percent of their SSA employees!

Hourslong lines stretching out the door have become a common feature of field offices. Hold times on SSA’s 1-800 hotline have increased to the point that nearly half of callers hang up in frustration. Importantly, these are services for which the American people have already paid.

None of this is the fault of hardworking SSA employers, who are doing the best they can with limited resources, including fewer staff members to deal with an increasing workload. But Republican politicians have tied their hands, creating huge amounts of unnecessary stress and anguish in the lives of America’s working families.

Seniors and their caregivers should not have to drive miles from their homes to visit a Social Security office. Bereaved widows and widowers with young children should not have to wait weeks for an appointment to claim the Social Security survivor benefits that their late spouses earned for their families. People with career-ending disabilities after decades of work most certainly should not have to wait two years or more to claim their earned Social Security disability benefits—if they can survive for that long.

That is the world that congressional Republicans have created, but they are still not satisfied. That world will get even worse if the budget soon to be voted on includes the Senate Appropriations Committee’s plan to squeeze another nearly half a billion dollars out of SSA’s budget.

Republicans like to say that government should be run like a business. Any private business as successful and popular as Social Security would be opening branches, not closing them. If congressional Republicans simply allow SSA to spend just another one- or two-tenths of a percent of Social Security’s large and growing surplus, the agency can provide the exemplary, first-class service for which it has always been known.