Imagine that you bought an insurance policy that guaranteed you $1,100 a month starting at age 62. When you tried to collect, you couldn't reach an agent on the phone, so you went to the office during its business hours, but the office was closed. When you finally found a day when the office was open, the overwhelmed employees made you wait hours and then told you that you would have to wait longer than usual to start getting your first monthly check because the agency had decided to cut back its hours, even though it was running a profit.
This could happen to you. You have purchased a retirement insurance annuity, as well as life insurance and disability insurance, and have paid for all the associated administrative costs, through deductions from your paycheck, the ones labeled "FICA" or "Social Security." Congress places a limit on what the Social Security Administration can spend, but the money is yours, deducted straight from your paychecks, solely for payment of Social Security's promised benefits and associated administrative costs.
Unlike the general operating fund of the federal government, Social Security is flush right now. It has an accumulated reserve of $2.6 trillion. It ran an annual surplus in 2010 estimated by SSA at $77 billion, and is projected to have an annual surplus in 2011 of $113 billion. If its benefits or administrative costs are cut, it will simply have a larger surplus this year.
With the aging of the baby boom generation, as well as the current high unemployment rate, benefit claims for benefits are at an all time high. Accordingly, President Obama has proposed, as any private sector executive would, to increase the amount taken from the Trust Funds for administrative costs by about $1 billion.
But the Republicans in the House of Representatives want to strip away $1.7 billion from the already underfunded agency, money that is needed simply to keep offices open. If the Republicans' budget plan goes through, the entire agency, including all 1,300 field offices might have to close for a month. A letter in anticipation of this has already been sent out to all employees. The phones would not be answered, and claims processing would halt. Around 700,000 workers who had purchased annuities and paid for the overhead would be forced into a backlog. Even worse, given the well documented need to replace SSA's aging computer system, the Republicans' proposed cuts threaten the whole program, if the current system and its backup were to fail before the building of the new system, already behind schedule, were completed.
No business would take these steps with its most popular product. No one is claiming there is waste. To the contrary, SSA is extremely efficient, spending less that one penny of every dollar on administration, with the other 99 cents going for our benefits. A private corporation would love to have this level of efficiency. So why are the Republicans, who claim they want the government to be more like business, deliberately seeking to undermine its most successful product?
The answer has to be ideology. There is no explanation other than a calculated effort to undermine support for Social Security, and in so doing, to further undermine confidence in the government. The Social Security Administration is the part of the federal government with which most Americans have the most direct contact. In addition to seeing money go to Social Security every pay period, workers receive annual statements from the agency. If tragedy strikes in the form of disability or premature death or if they decide to retire after a lifetime of work, the Social Security Administration is where workers and their families go. From the beginning, SSA has emphasized the importance of service. It used to be that every single employee was trained to understand the importance of Social Security, so all employees, no matter what their job, could understand that they were serving the public. More recent commissioners have eliminated this universal training and taken other steps that have undercut morale. Freezing the pay and cutting back on employee hours will undoubtedly undercut morale further.
It is time to take a stand. Public servants serve the public. Some do so by patrolling our streets, teaching our children, responding to fires, collecting our garbage. Those at SSA do so by ensuring that we receive in a timely fashion the benefits we have earned. In the case of Social Security, Republicans cannot even argue that the deficit is making them do it, because Social Security is in surplus.
I urge you to tell your elected members -- they do work for you -- , that you want your local Social Security office open and well-staffed. After all, you have already paid for that service.