It's a great thing that Democrats are united behind expanding Social Security. Knowing that a new line—no cuts to Social Security benefits—is huge. But before we can even get to the fight that makes expansion happen, there are Social Security cuts happening under a Republican Congress that are hurting seniors and disabled people all over the country. Those cuts are to the core operating budget of the Social Security Administration, which has been slashed by 10 percent in the last five years.
Almost all of SSA’s operating budget is spent on staff, and most of SSA’s staff provide direct service to the public. Funding cuts — which have fueled the loss of 6 percent of SSA’s staff nationwide since 2010 — unavoidably result in service gaps. There are fewer people to take appointments, answer phones, and process applications for Social Security’s vital retirement, survivor, and disability benefits. As a result, applicants and beneficiaries must wait longer.
This new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows, state-by-state, what these administrative costs means. In five states—Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and West Virginia—offices have lost at least 15 percent of their staff. One of the things this has resulted in is "a record-high disability hearing backlog of over 1 million applicants, and some applicants wait over two years for a final decision."
Daily Kos spoke with Nancy Altman, Founding Co-Director of Social Security Works, who made a critical point about these cuts: "There are two ways to dismantle Social Security: First, benefits can be cut, privatized, or both. Second, Congress can make it impossible, by starving the Social Security Administration's budget and creating huge backlogs, for people to claim their earned benefits. Republicans are trying to do both." And they're succeeding in doing the second.
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As Altman points out, this is even more egregious because the administrative costs of Social Security are not appropriated by Congress, out of the federal budget. It all comes out of Social Security's dedicated revenue, now at a $2.8 trillion surplus. The SSA could operate at full strength, but the Republican Congress isn't letting it, setting limits on how much it can spend administratively. The result is an agency hampered in administering the most popular public program in the nation's history, and the goal is to make that program run less efficiently, be more bureaucratic, and to erode its popularity. If Republicans can't directly and quickly kill Social Security, they'll take the long road of undermining it.
Altman has a message for every Democrat running for federal office: "I strongly encourage all Democrats running to office to make full funding for SSA, along with expansion of Social Security's modest benefits, a centerpiece of their campaigns." Because, as she points out, "a Democratic majority in Congress is the best way to ensure that Americans receive their earned benefits in a convenient and timely fashion as a result of the first class Social Security service they have purchased and deserve."