Recent reports indicate Speaker Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin have reached an agreement to enact a clean Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded beyond Sept. 30. A clean CR means the legislation will not have any “poison pills” attached to it, but even clean CRs typically have anomalies or adjustments for each of the federal agencies to deal with practical issues facing the agencies. The Trump administration has been reported to have a list of several anomalies it would like to see included in the CR, and the House and Senate appropriations committees are likely developing lists of possible adjustments to include in the CR.
Congress should add two specific adjustments to the CR to improve the administration of the programs run by the Social Security Administration (SSA). First, Congress should require SSA to send notices to Social Security beneficiaries who are potentially eligible for additional income through the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. Second, Congress should require SSA to fully bring back the Social Security Statement, which provides personalized information to workers about their history of earnings and about their eligibility for Social Security retirement, disability, and survivor benefits.
SSI serves the most vulnerable populations in the United States: disabled children, disabled adults, and elderly individuals with low income. A recent study of SSI children found they had high rates of poverty (even with SSI benefits), high rates of being hospitalized, and high mortality rates relative to other children. They are also much more likely to be African American or Hispanic. With regard to disabled adults on SSI, another study found poverty rates are far higher than for the overall working age population, as are rates of hospitalization. The study also found that 28 percent of SSI disabled adults are African American, indicating the program’s importance to minorities.
It is important that everyone eligible for SSI receive benefits from the program, but recent problems in the administration of this program have led to a sharp decline in the number of people awarded benefits. In July of this year, SSA awarded the smallest number of SSI benefits to disabled Americans in the last 20 years. The August award figures were just published and reveal the problem continues: SSI awards to disabled children, disabled adults, and the elderly are at unusually low levels. SSA can rectify this problem to a large extent simply by mailing notices to Social Security beneficiaries who may be eligible for additional income through SSI. Congress should require this of the agency in the upcoming CR.
As with SSI, there are potential problems with other programs managed by SSA. In March, the agency shuttered its field offices due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Total applications for Social Security disability for the months of January, February, and March of this year were 3 percent higher than the same time period in 2019. However, applications for Social Security disability for the months April through August of this year were more than 12 percent lower than for the same period in 2019.
In the past, one way that individuals learned about their eligibility for Social Security disability was when they were mailed the Social Security Statement. Indeed, a study published in the American Economic Journal found the Social Security Statement was an important tool for informing individuals about their eligibility for disability benefits. Today, SSA no longer mails the Social Security Statement to the broad population of American workers, but rather only to those 60 or older – thus many younger and middle-aged people are not informed of the disability and survivor benefits available to them.
Unlike SSI, Social Security benefits are not means-tested. Nevertheless, young and middle-aged Social Security beneficiaries are the most vulnerable beneficiaries on the program. A recent study found one-quarter of Social Security disability beneficiaries lived in poverty and nearly 2 in 5 reported difficulty affording food or being unable to pay monthly housing or utility bills. The study also found 21 percent of Social Security disability beneficiaries are African American.
In short, even those who receive Social Security disability benefits have difficulty making ends meet. Persons who are eligible for Social Security disability but who do not receive benefits almost certainly face extreme hardship.
Mailing the Social Security Statement to all adults, not just those 60 or older, would help individuals understand their eligibility for Social Security disability and survivor benefits. Congress should require this in the next CR.
These two ideas for the next CR are not controversial or “poison pills.” Indeed, they do not even change policy. They would be practical responses on the part of the government to simply help people in need understand the benefits that Congress has already put in the law.
These two ideas have merit even in normal times but are especially needed now because the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the closure of SSA’s 1,200 field offices. When the field offices were open, nearly 175,000 Americans visited the offices each day. SSA needs to address the dramatic and sudden drop in information provided to the public (formerly in the field offices) with something that has some scale to it.
Mailed notices and Social Security Statements can easily be sent to large numbers of Americans, so they represent large-scale communication efforts. They are also efficient: cost per notice is low, but the value of lifetime benefits generated for those who qualify for benefits is extremely high.
Even with CRs, Congress often makes practical adjustments to address issues faced by federal agencies. The programs administered by SSA are the largest, and arguably the most important, programs in the country. With the next CR, Congress can make some straightforward administrative improvements in these programs that would greatly benefit the American public.
David A. Weaver, Ph.D., is an economist and retired federal employee who has authored a number of studies on the Social Security program. The views in this article do not reflect the views of any federal agency.
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