Until earlier this year, there was a Social Security field office in Gadsden County, Florida, in the state's panhandle. It's the kind of place where seniors need to get in-person help with their benefits rather than pick up a phone or go online.
"Our poverty rate is nearly double the state average, and we trail the state averages in education," said Brenda Holt, a county commissioner. "Most of the people here don't have computers, let alone reliable Internet access."
Holt testified Wednesday before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, which is investigating the impact of budget cutting at the Social Security Administration over the past five years. Sixty-four field offices and more than 500 temporary mobile offices, known as contact stations, have been closed. And the SSA is reducing or eliminating a variety of in-person services that it once provided in its offices.
The SSA also has been developing a long-range strategy for delivering services. A draft document states that it will rely on the Internet and "self-service delivery"—and provide in-person services in "very limited circumstances, such as for complex transactions and to meet the needs of vulnerable populations."
Gadsden County meets any criteria you could pick for vulnerability. But the field office in Quincy, the county seat, was closed with just a few weeks' notice in March, Holt said. The nearest office is 30 miles away in Tallahassee—reachable only by car or a crowded shuttle bus that runs once a day in each direction.
The Senate committee's investigation found SSA's process for office consolidation wanting for clear criteria, transparency and community feedback. Only after persistent objections by local officials did the SSA offer to set up a videoconferencing station in a local library that connects seniors to representatives in its Tallahassee office.
"It's deeply frustrated and angered our community," said Holt. "Many of our residents live in a financial environment where they make choices between medications and food to feed their families. Problems with Social Security benefits can have a catastrophic effect on families."
The SSA's workload is rising as baby boomers retire; the number of claims in fiscal 2013 was 27 percent higher than in 2007. Yet the agency has 11,000 fewer workers than it did three years ago, and hiring freezes have led to uneven staffing in offices.
The SSA has received less than its budget request in 14 of the last 16 years. In fiscal 2012, it operated with 88% of the amount requested ($11.4 billion). The budget was restored somewhat in fiscal 2014 to $11.7 billion. And President Barack Obama's 2015 budget request is $12 billion.
But service still suffers. The National Council of Social Security Management Associations reports that field office wait time is 30% longer than in 2012, and wait times and busy rates on the agency's toll-free 800 number have doubled.
The SSA's plan to save $70 million a year by replacing annual paper benefit statements with electronic access also has been a misstep, at least in the short run. Paper statements were suspended in 2011, but just 6 percent of all workers have signed up for online access, in some cases because of a lack of computer access or literacy but also because of sign-up difficulties related to the website's complex anti-fraud systems.
In April the agency backtracked, announcing it will resume mailings of paper statements this September at five-year intervals to workers who have not signed up to view their statements online. (You can create an online account here.)
Wednesday's hearing shed much-needed light on the customer service squeeze at SSA, though it would have been good to hear legislators acknowledge that Congress had no business cutting the SSA budget in the first place. The agency is funded by the same dedicated stream (payroll taxes) that funds benefits, and its administrative costs are low, 1.4% of all outlays. The SSA is funded by Americans' tax dollars and exists to provide customer service to all Americans.
Nancy Berryhill, the SSA's deputy commissioner for operations, did her best at the hearing to defend the agency's efforts to cope. "It's my job to balance service across nation—these are difficult times."
Still, she conceded that there's room for improvement. "We need to get more input from the community," she said, speaking about the events in Gadsden County. "Adding the video service made a difference after the fact, but we need to be more thoughtful in the future."