Protesters gather during the Bush administration campaign to privatize… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)
The Social Security Administration is getting better all the time -- at quietly slashing services to Americans.
The agency has closed dozens of field offices and sharply cut back the staff and hours of those still open. The cutbacks threaten to make wait times on its phone lines longer. Rulings on disability applications will take longer too. Put it all together, and client service at the Social Security Administration begins to look more like customer service at your cable company every day.
That's bad for the agency, and it's worse for the millions of Americans who pay into the program with every paycheck or depend on its life-sustaining benefits.
The agency's latest move, which took effect Oct. 1, is to completely cut out all mailings of annual statements to enrollees and beneficiaries, even to people who request them.
These statements were mandated by an act of Congress in 1993. They served the admirable purposes of showing exactly how much you and your employers had contributed to the program over the years and how much in benefits you were entitled to as a result.
As I wrote back in March, these statements were a powerful rebuttal to the scare-tactic pitch, coming from unscrupulous investment brokers, anti-government ideologues and their friends in Congress, that you couldn't count on Social Security in your old age.
Last year the Social Security Administration suspended the mailing of individual statements to everyone except near-retirees 60 and older. Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue told me in March that he was hoping to restore the full mailing schedule via an appropriation in the president's 2013 budget. But that budget hasn't passed. Cutting the mailings to all 154 million recipients, the agency says, saves $70 million a year.
Yet in a practical sense, that expenditure is a bargain -- it's 44 cents per recipient, including postage, or a little more than one half of 1% of the agency's $11.7-billion administrative budget. The agency notes that it has replaced the mailed paper statements with a facsimile you can find by going to the internet and creating an online account at www.socialsecurity.gov/mystatement.
But is that an adequate substitute? No way. For one thing, you have to know that your statement is available via the Internet, you have to know where to find it, and you have to be able to navigate a registration procedure that is not all that user-friendly -- especially for someone not familiar with navigating the Web, and double-especially for someone without easy access to a computer. Despite a claim that we all live in the digital world today, those are not small groups.
Importantly, the Social Security Administration has made no discernible effort to proactively advise Americans that the paper statements are a thing of the past. In other words, what was once its most effective outreach to millions of people has disappeared without a trace, or a single word of warning.
Social Security says that if you have problems accessing the online service, you can get help at a Social Security office. Of course, those offices, which used to be open until 4 p.m., are now open only till 3:30. Starting in mid-November, they'll only be open till 3. And starting Jan. 2, they'll be closing at noon Wednesdays.
"There's already an enormous amount of unhappiness for people who walk to their Social Security office and find a sign saying, 'We closed at 3:30,'" says Webster Phillips, a former Social Security associate commissioner who now works with the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
Who's responsible for this steady erosion of service? Conservatives in Congress, who have been merrily hacking away at the program's administrative budget. Make no mistake -- this is their stealth attack on the program itself. They haven't been able to cut benefits, so they're doing the next best thing: making it hard for you to know what you're due, and harder to get it when it comes due. The bottom line is that Social Security starts to look less relevant to Americans' lives, even as it really becomes more important.
"The law unambiguously requires that statements be mailed to people's homes each year, because it is good service and good policy," says Nancy Altman, co-director of Social Security Works, a major advocacy organization. "Failing to announce the change to the public and thus not giving the public and Congress time to comment is another piece of the failure to provide the service the American people expect and deserve. We should all insist that we get what we have paid for."
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