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SSA’s Obligation To Ensure That The Public’s Funds Are Responsibly Collected and Expended

March 8, 2002


The care with which the Social Security Administration carries out its responsibilities is important to almost everyone. Today, about 154 million workers, or 96 percent of the workforce, are engaged in employment covered by Social Security and, together with their employers, are paying the taxes that are used to support the system. Nearly 33 million individuals, or 91 percent of those age 65 and over, are receiving retirement benefits. About 90 percent of those age 21 to 64 who worked in covered employment in 2001 can count on monthly cash benefits in the event of a severe and prolonged disability. About 6.7 million needy individuals are receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits based on old age or disability.

Over the last five years much of the Board’s work has been directed at evaluating the quality of service that SSA provides to the public and we have issued several reports with recommendations for how service can be improved. The purpose of this report is to set forth for the President, the Congress, and the agency our serious concerns that major changes must be made to improve the integrity of SSA’s operations. Ensuring program integrity is an inherent aspect of the agency’s responsibility to provide good service to the public. Taxpayers who support the Social Security and SSI programs must be confident that their tax dollars are accurately collected and expended. Claimants and beneficiaries must believe that program rules and procedures are rigorously followed and that the benefits they and others receive are accurate. A full reporting of SSA’s use of taxpayers’ dollars is essential to meeting these objectives, as the Board has noted in its earlier reports.

SSA’s employees understand and want to meet the public’s expectations and needs, and one of the agency’s stated objectives is to ensure program integrity. But as workloads have grown and resources have declined, managers and employees throughout the agency’s administrative structure are increasingly frustrated that they lack both the time and the tools they need to do the high quality work that the agency expects and that they expect of themselves.

This report describes aspects of the agency’s work that urgently need improvement. The most critical is to improve the integrity of SSA’s enumeration process. An unknown number of Social Security numbers are being issued on the basis of fraudulent documents. Fraudulent use of the SSN has become a significant public policy issue, an issue that is expected to grow as the number of SSN-related crimes continues to escalate. Other areas of the agency’s work that need strengthening include the accuracy of disability determinations, accuracy of SSI payments, collection of overpayments, accountability of representative payees, posting and reporting of wages, and systems security.

SSA needs to improve both policies and practices. The culture of the agency needs to be changed to strengthen teamwork and speed up decision making so that program integrity issues can be addressed promptly and forthrightly. The agency also needs sufficient staff with the right skills. SSA’s budget proposals should reflect the staffing levels and the staff qualifications that the agency needs to serve the public appropriately and to meet its stewardship responsibilities. SSA’s administrative budget for Social Security should be excluded from any cap that sets an arbitrary limit on discretionary spending. In addition, as a way of addressing immediate needs, there should be a separate funding mechanism – outside of the spending cap – to enable the agency to implement program integrity initiatives that will pay for themselves, such as the current funding arrangement for conducting continuing disability reviews (CDRs). In the longer term, the new budget process that the Commissioner is developing can integrate the agency’s stewardship activities with overall service requirements.