Politics

Slowly Killing Social Security: Death by a Thousand Cuts

A surreptitious but deadly attack against your Social Security is underway. Congress just left town, but not without plunging the knife in one more time.

From the beginning, a small but powerful group of ideologues – a “small splinter group” in the words of President Dwight Eisenhower – has sought to get rid of Social Security. At the start, the plan was to repeal it and replace it with means-tested welfare. In recent decades, the plan has been to “save” Social Security by destroying it – again, replacing it with means-tested welfare, but now also with inadequate 401k-type layered on top, as sugar-coating.

The American people have never let it happen, and the Democratic Party is now solidly with them, pushing to expand, not cut, Social Security. Stymied in their efforts to destroy Social Security legislatively, the system’s opponents are relying on another tactic, involving small cuts, largely imperceptible to the American people and ultimately lethal.

To recognize the stealth war on Social Security, it is essential to understand that the funds deducted for Social Security from workers’ paychecks do not just pay for monthly benefits. Those funds also pay every penny of Social Security’s administrative costs. These include the local offices around the country, the 1-800 number, the workers who administer the disability claims system, and other personnel and services that are necessary to ensure that Americans receive their earned benefits in an accurate, timely, and efficient manner.

Just like the benefits themselves, these administrative expenses are fully funded. Social Security has no borrowing authority. Indeed, Social Security has a $2.8 trillion accumulated surplus. In 2015 alone, it ran a surplus of $23 billion. There is plenty of money for administration. Congress does not appropriate a penny for those administrative costs. What it does is limit how much of that huge surplus and incoming revenue can be used by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) for administration of the program in any given year. For years, Congress has been limiting drastically how much SSA can spend of Social Security’s surplus on administration.

Just since 2010, Congress has required that SSA spend ten percent less, in nominal dollars, than what it was spending before. Ten percent less, even though Social Security ran a surplus in every one of those years. Ten percent less, even though Social Security has trillions of dollars in reserve. Ten percent less, even though, in order to simply maintain services at their current level, SSA needs to spend an additional $300 million a year just to cover the increase in its fixed costs, such as the cost of rent, electricity and phones. Ten percent less, even though those fixed costs rise every single year.

True to form, before leaving town, Congress just told SSA it has to spend less, starting October 1, than it spent last year. Less, even though the latest figures project that Social Security will run a $15.7 billion surplus in 2016 and an even larger $31.1 billion surplus in 2017. And even though it continues to have trillions more dollars in reserve.

And it is not like Social Security’s workload is going down. Quite the opposite. During that same period – as Congress tightened the clamps on SSA so it had to spend 10 percent less for administration out of its $2.8 trillion surplus and incoming revenue – the number of Social Security beneficiaries increased by twelve percent. And, with 10,000 baby boomers, on average, retiring every single day, SSA’s workload will keep growing. After all, the youngest baby boomers, those born in 1964, won’t even be eligible to claim retirement benefits for another decade.

Throughout its history, Social Security has had a well-deserved reputation for exemplary customer service. But no organization, private or public, can see its workload continually increase and its budget continually decrease, without a deterioration of customer service.

Politicians are quick to say that government should be run like a business. Well, imagine that you are so ill that it disables you from being able to work. Fortunately, you have disability insurance. You contact the insurance company to collect the proceeds. But every time you call, you get a busy signal or are left on hold for hours. Frustrated, you go to the office in person, only to find the office is closed. You go another day, and find the doors open, but lines out the door. No private company would remain in business with that kind of customer service.

This is not a hypothetical example. A woman in Florida had open-heart surgery. That, on top of her diabetes, and arthritis, made it impossible for her to continue to work. Fortunately, she had been paying for Social Security her whole working life. She applied for her earned Social Security disability benefits, but had to wait two years to get a hearing. Though she had no income coming in while she waited, she still had her very high prescription drug and other medical costs, as well as her rent, heating, and all the other expenses of life. She found herself evicted and living on the street. When her son found out, he quit college and got a low paying job in order to pay her rent, so she no longer would have to be homeless until she finally began getting her earned Social Security benefits.

Sadly, this horrific story is far from unique. Indeed, it is not uncommon for people to die while waiting to begin receiving their Social Security disability benefits. Social Security’s disability, survivor, and retirement benefits are a necessity for most Americans. Two-thirds of retirees rely on Social Security for half or more of their income. A full one-third rely on those benefits for virtually all of their income. The reliance by people with disabilities is even greater.

The hardworking SSA employees are not to blame. The blame rests squarely on Congress, which refuses to let Social Security spend its surplus on increased services – or, for that matter, even on maintenance of its services. Since 2011, SSA has been forced to close 64 field offices, along with 533 – almost all – of its mobile offices. The agency employs 25,000 fewer employees, resulting in shortened hours and long lines at the field offices that remain open. My organization, Social Security Works, has just released new reports for every state showing how these cuts have hurt beneficiaries around the country.

Americans who are forced to stop work as the result of serious disabilities and simply want to start receiving the disability benefits they have earned – like the Florida woman – have been especially hurt. Over one million Americans are currently waiting to have their disability claims finally determined. It takes almost two years to get off the waiting list. This is an outrage. Even if those waiting to receive their earned benefits do not die or wind up homeless, but instead are able to scrape by, thanks to savings and help from friends and family, this is wrong.

Much less serious but also wrong is the inconvenience Americans experience every day, having to waste hours and hours simply to be able to talk to an employee of SSA. All of this inconvenience and hardship is totally unnecessary and easily avoidable.

To repeat, for SSA to pay its administrative expenses, Congress is not appropriating money from a depleted general fund. Rather, Congress is refusing to permit SSA to spend a few tenths of one percent more of Social Security’s accumulated surplus – monies deducted from workers’ paychecks for the very purpose of paying for the high-quality service those workers and their families have purchased, but are currently denied. A few tenths of one percent more. That is all that is at stake.

So why are members of Congress hurting their own constituents by limiting how much Social Security can spend of its own money at a time when its workload is exploding? The only logical answer is ideology. Social Security is among our nation’s most successful and popular government programs. That success and popularity makes Social Security the largest obstacle to those embracing a radical anti-government agenda.

For decades, opponents of Social Security have worked to dismantle it. When President George W. Bush tried to pass his privatization scheme, a leaked White House memo asserted, “For the first time in six decades, the Social Security battle is one we can win.”

Of course, the assessment was wrong. While opponents of Social Security certainly have not given up on their quest to dismantle Social Security, they must see that it has become even more difficult now that the Democratic Party is united in support of expanding and not cutting benefits. But, death by a thousand administrative cuts remains hidden, under the radar.

False claims by Social Security’s opponents that Social Security is unaffordable have succeeded in weakening the confidence of the American people in the program’s future, but the false claims have not, at least so far, resulted in actual cuts. But perhaps closed offices, long wait times, and overworked employees might weaken the public’s support enough, to allow the program to be dismantled. At least, that appears to be the thinking.

The 2016 Democratic Party Platform calls specifically for increased funding for SSA’s administration,

The Democratic Party is also committed to providing all necessary financial support for the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) so that it can provide timely benefits and high-quality service for those it serves.

If Democrats are smart, they will run strongly on this plank. All Democrats should make it clear to voters that the Republicans are the ones responsible for the decline in SSA’s historically exemplary service. Let the American people know what’s really going on so that they can make an informed decision on Election Day.

Those who have a stake in Social Security – that’s all of us – should send a clear message to every candidate running for federal office: Expand, don’t cut, our earned Social Security benefits. And expand, don’t cut, the Social Security services we have also earned and purchased.

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Slowly Killing Social Security: Death by a Thousand Cuts