Social Security has closed 67 field offices since fiscal 2010 in rural and urban areas alike. For the public, the cuts have meant less access to field offices, and ballooning wait times in the remaining 1,229 offices and on the agency’s toll-free line. It also has meant long delays in hearings on disability insurance appeals and in resolving benefit errors.
From 2010 to 2018, Congress reduced the agency’s operating budget 9% in inflation-adjusted terms; at the same time, the number of beneficiaries rose 17%, according to agency data. The agency’s budget is increasing now, and Mark Hinkle, a spokesman, said it will enable Social Security to reduce its backlogs.
Few government agencies touch the lives of as many Americans as the Social Security Administration. In fiscal 2019, which began on Oct. 1, the agency projects it will pay $1.1 trillion in benefits to about 69 million recipients of Social Security retirement and disability benefits and recipients of Supplemental Security Income. Social Security will serve about 43 million visitors at its field offices and handle around 75 million calls to its toll-free phone line.
The average wait time to see a claims agent in field offices was 26.5 minutes in fiscal 2018—37 percent higher than in 2010, according to the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, an organization composed of field office and telecommunications service center managers. Contacting Social Security through its toll-free number can be difficult, and 15% of callers heard a busy signal when calling during fiscal 2018, according to the council.
SSA’s long-term strategy states that by 2025, most transactions should be online, and in-person services be limited “to meet the needs of vulnerable populations.” But a report last year by the Government Accountability Office found that the spread of online services has been limited by factors like uneven computer literacy and non-English speaking or homeless populations.
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