U.S. Social Security funding should ease customer-service crisis

Need help from the Social Security Administration with your benefits? Be prepared for a long wait.

Years of budget cuts by Congress have left the Social Security Administration (SSA) short of staff on its toll-free customer service line. Long lines form daily outside many local field offices. And the backlog of people waiting for a hearing on disability insurance claims is more than 600 days.

But last week, Congress made a downpayment on a badly needed fix for the customer-service crisis plaguing the agency. Lawmakers ignored the Trump administration’s request to hold the SSA budget flat, instead boosting the agency’s administrative budget by $480 million as part of the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending legislation signed into law by the president.

Few government agencies touch as many lives as the Social Security Administration. In fiscal 2017, the agency paid $990 billion in benefits to 67 million retired or disabled workers, survivors and recipients of Supplemental Security Income. The agency interacts with the public through its network of more than 1,200 field offices, its website and its toll-free teleservice.

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Even the increased funding for disability hearings will not turn things around overnight. Much will depend on how the money is spent, said Lisa Ekman, director of government affairs for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, a group of attorneys that handles disability cases. “While $100 million sounds like a lot of money, it’s a drop in the bucket in the context of the chronic underfunding of the system that has been going on for years.”

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