Few government agencies touch the lives of more Americans than the Social Security Administration — the agency pays $1.4 trillion in benefits to more than 71 million people every year.
But Social Security has been grappling with a customer service mess that threatens to grow worse because of the federal budget deadlock and a possible government shutdown early next year. The problems include long wait times on the agency’s toll-free phone line, a large backlog in disability applications and controversial clawbacks of overpayments to low-income and disabled beneficiaries.
Many of the problems stem from austere administrative budgets imposed by Congress over the past decade. Since 2011, congressional cuts to the agency’s customer service budget total 17 percent after adjustments for inflation, and staffing fell to a 25-year low last year, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research and policy organization. At the same time, the number of beneficiaries rose by 22 percent over the past decade.
The current budget battle in Congress could worsen the situation. The Biden administration has requested a $1.3 billion increase in the S.S.A.’s customer service budget for next year, but House Republicans have proposed a $250 million cut in that spending. Decisions about federal spending have been pushed into early 2024 under an agreement reached last month.
The funding problems come while the S.S.A.’s leadership is in transition. President Biden has nominated Martin O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland and a former presidential candidate, as the agency’s permanent director, and Mr. O’Malley is awaiting Senate confirmation. He would replace Kilolo Kijakazi, who has served as acting director since July 2021, when the president fired Commissioner Andrew Saul, an appointee of President Donald J. Trump.
S.S.A. commissioners don’t talk with reporters very often, but I interviewed her for a column on the agency’s customer services woes that appears this weekend in the New York Times.
Dr. Kijakazi pointed to several areas of progress during her tenure, including re-establishing walk-in traffic at the agency’s 1,230 field offices after a pandemic shutdown, using this year’s $707 million increase in customer service funding to add 7,900 employees and, after years of troubled relations, reaching contract agreements with the three unions that represent the S.S.A. work force.
But she added that the administrative budget problems remained a central issue.
“It will take years of sustained, sufficient funding and collaboration both within the agency and with outside partners for the agency to recover from a work force and service crisis that was years in the making,” she said.