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Challenges Facing the Social Security Administration: Present and Future

December 16, 2008

The programs administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA) form the foundation for the nation’s social insurance network that has greatly reduced poverty among the elderly through the retirement and survivors program and provides income support to people with disabilities, widows and widowers, and young children. As such, the agency has performed admirably since 1936 when it came into being. On an annual basis, SSA issues payments to 60 million people who have established eligibility to Social Security or Supplemental Security Income benefits, a total of $650 billion—an amount equal to 20 percent of all federal spending and 5 percent of the national gross domestic product.

Current state and future burdens

– The agency is severely stressed now:

  • 750,000 hearings cases are backlogged; the average wait for a decision by an administrative law judge is over 500 days.
  • There is a 50 percent busy rate at the 800 number, in addition to the growing number of unanswered phone calls in the field office.
  • The waiting times in field offices are climbing—each month over 300,000 individuals who walk into a field office wait over an hour to be served.
  • Computer systems capacity and slow response time continue to be issues. The agency cannot offer 24/7 service because the antiquated systems must be backed up each night, necessitating taking the electronic services off line.

SSA has estimated that over the next five years they will experience tremendous growth in their workloads. But these numbers do not reflect the likely increase in benefit applications that may occur due to the recent downturn in the economy:

  • RSI and Medicare by 28 percent.
  • SSI applications by 23 percent.
  • Disability applications by 5 percent.
  • New and replacement Social Security cards issued will increase by
    9 percent to 18.8 million.

In addition to core workloads, the agency has been tasked with unfunded additional responsibilities:

  • Medicare Prescription Drug program.
  • Verification of employment eligibility.
  • Medicaid and Food Stamp programs.

SSA must maintain a system of records that is used as a key identifier for nearly all financial and health records in the country. The maintenance of this information embodies security risks never imagined by the creators of the Social Security Act:

  • 270 million earnings items are posted yearly to workers’ records.
  • The records of over 60 million Social Security and Supplemental Security Income beneficiaries are currently maintained.
  • 250 million medical records are currently stored, increasing at the rate of 2 million per week.