Larson Opening Statement at Social Security Subcommittee Hearing on “Strengthening Customer Service at SSA”
(As prepared for delivery)
We are holding this important hearing today to spotlight and underscore customer service challenges at the Social Security Administration, during the COVID-19 pandemic and prior to 2020.
Americans know and understand that Social Security is an earned benefit which Congress has established and that they have paid for with each and every paycheck!
We have all heard stories from our constituents and from well-publicized articles across the country of the struggles of Americans accessing benefits and services while the field offices were closed during the pandemic due to health and safety concerns. We have also heard from employees and union members.
As Chair of this Subcommittee, we have conducted extensive oversight of the agency during the pandemic, contacting the agency repeatedly regarding our concerns about customer service during the pandemic and have requested four reports from General Accountability Office and the Office of Inspector General.
We also want to thank Chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee Bill Pascrell and Chairman of the Worker Family Subcommittee Danny Davis for their work to ensure that both Social Security and Supplemental Security Income beneficiaries have access to benefits and services.
In one of the recent reports we requested from the Inspector General focused on the difficulties with telephone service resulting in long wait times sometimes more than an hour, recurring busy signals and disconnections.
Without objection, I enter my letters to SSA, the GAO and the Inspector General into the record.
I would also like to submit written testimony from the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO representing 43,000 employees at SSA.
In May of 2020 the Subcommittee held a roundtable with stakeholders and in July of 2020 a public hearing on the impact of COVID on Social Security and its beneficiaries.
As we will hear today, many seniors, low-income individuals, people of color and those with disabilities don’t have access to a computer or have difficulty navigating the phone system.
In person walk up services to SSA is essential to removing barriers.
But we should remember that SSA has struggled to provide adequate customer service even before the pandemic due to administrative funding that has not kept pace with inflation or the agency’s growing number of beneficiaries.
This is a nonpartisan issue and should be resolved nonpartisanly.
The number of beneficiaries since 2010 has grown by 21% from 54 million to 65 million, yet SSA’s budget has fallen by 14% during that same time adjusting for inflation.
As a result, SSA was forced to shrink its workforce. Now SSA has fewer than 60,000 workers, which is the lowest in 25 years, despite almost double the number of beneficiaries, and compounded by a pandemic and 10,000 Baby Boomers a day becoming eligible for Social Security!
Compared to 2010, SSA has 13 percent fewer employees available to serve the public, a loss of 1 out of every 8 positions.
The agency was also forced to shut 67 field offices, shorten hours its field offices were open to the public, and put off critical updates to its information technology and telephone system.
More than 100,000 Americans have died awaiting a final decision on their appeal for SSA disability benefits.
I recently visited the field offices in my district. The SSA employees I met are extremely dedicated and hard-working public servants doing an almost impossible job with the resources they have.
They shared with me the hiring and retention problems caused by the lack of funding.
SSA’s operations funding its retirement, dependent and disability benefits are primarily funded by the Social Security Trust Funds, which in turn are funded through workers’ contributions through FICA – the Federal Insurance Contributions Act – in each and every paycheck.
It is the largest federal agency serving 65 million Americans (with an average of 40 million field office visitors a year prior to the pandemic) paying out more than one trillion dollars in benefits each year and is also the most efficient federal agency.
I want to commend the agency on its re-opening April 7 with 98% of its 1,200 field offices open to walk-in visitors and with its increased use of telework for employees.
Members of this Subcommittee and I are joining with Senators Brown, Wyden and Casey in sending a letter today to President Biden calling for the establishment of a position for “Beneficiary Advocate” at SSA. While every Social Security employee is an advocate for beneficiaries, I believe this position will elevate the needs of beneficiaries within the agency and with Congress.
SSA is an extremely efficient agency. This is something Republicans and Democrats can agree on. Its operating budget for the retirement, survivor and disability programs is less than 1% of benefits paid each year! The private sector retirement and benefits companies would kill for this kind of efficiency with a 99% loss ratio.
But they can’t be efficient without more funding -- with 10,000 baby boomers retiring a day with many Americans needing essential in-person visits to the field office.
Lastly, I will note that Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust with 201 cosponsors includes several critical customer service improvements:
A provision authored by my colleague, Brian Higgins, to prevent field office closures unless certain requirements are met
A provision to clarify that Congress did indeed intend for annual Social Security Statements to be mailed to workers age 25 and older so that they can plan for their financial security
A provision updating and indexing to wages the cap on the amount private representatives can earn helping beneficiaries in their cases.
Social Security 2100 is moving toward Ways and Means Committee markup in the near future and l look forward to bringing the bill to a vote on the floor.
It is Congress’ responsibility to vote to improve and protect the Social Security benefits Americans have paid for in each paycheck and to ensure that Americans have access to the benefits they’ve earned!