Social Security: An agency in crisis

Social Security — the agency and the idea — has drawn debate since its inception under President Franklin Roosevelt. Neither the agency nor the program is going away, so the nation has to deal with it.

The dense but essential report from the Social Security trustees outlines the future of income and outlays from Social Security’s old age and disability trust funds. These cause long-term challenges to the nation’s finances, but it barely registers with Congress.

People will argue forever whether Social Security benefits deliver an essential service of a humane nation or the leading edge of communism. But what no one can seriously debate is, if we’re going to have a Social Security Administration, it ought to be a good one. One with enough people and other resources to carry out the mission adequately.  That’s where the administrative budget of Social Security comes in.

SSA is analogous to the IRS. It’s got to deal with the tax policies we have, regardless of how insanely arcane they might be. IRS employees didn’t create them, but they have to interpret and administer them.

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Backlogs provide evidence of Social Security’s crisis as surely as high fever indicates an infection. SSA’s backlog of cases awaiting a disability benefits denial hearing has reached 1 million. Actually 1.1 million. You don’t get a hearing until you’ve been turned down twice by an adjudicator. So the 1.1 million represents a lot of staff work already completed to no avail.

The backlog stems from the crushing workload on SSA staff who must process these cases. The biggest backlog smothers the Birmingham, Alabama office: 12,971 cases with an average processing time of 621 days. This for a city with a population of about 212,000. The South Jersey office’s backlog stands at a mere 10,403, but it processes cases a little slower — 757 days.

In its 2018 budget request, the Trump administration puts the disability appeals hearing process at the top of Social Security’s management priorities. It’s requesting an essentially flat budget at $12.5 billion. It plans to reduce the backlog “through initiatives aimed at improving business processes and increasing the number of decisions we make.”

For sure, data analysis can pinpoint the slow case workers and judges, or the rules and decision points that hang up the most cases. It’s easy to make more decisions. Each office could have a dart board with two fields, yes and no. Making the correct decision in each case, that’s the hard task. Expert software systems and business process re-engineering can help, and SSA should keep at them. But given the workloads, the agency also needs more people.

SSA might be able to redeploy some of the people it has. This FedSmith article from May raises the question of whether the agency has too many managers and not enough line people. Regardless, you don’t wipe out a million-case backlog with process improvement alone. If something requires human judgment, you need skulls filled with gray mush.

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