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The Crisis in Social Security (News Analysis)

Harry Brill
Friday August 08, 2014 - 10:18:00 AM

Despite running a surplus of $2.8 trillion, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has closed 80 offices, eliminated over 500 temporary mobile offices, and reduced its workforce since 2010 by 11,000. Moreover, it is planning on closing in the near future hundreds of more offices, and eventually, shutting down as many of the 1,245 field offices that it can get away with. Many additional thousands of useful jobs will be discarded. Seniors will be compelled to cope with their questions and concerns via the computer. If things go as planned, SSA's functions will be outsourced to private contractors. At the request of Congress SSA contracted with a think tank—the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) — to develop a long range vision for social security. NAPA is highly respected by Congress, which has given it a charter. Although the charter is just honorific, it gives an organization the aura of being officially sanctioned by the US Government. Significantly, current and past employees of major corporations have been on NAPA's Board of Directors. 

Here are NAPA's main recommendation, which would make life very problematic for seniors, the disabled, and SSA's employees. First, NAPA proposes that the main functions of SSA should be computerized so that direct service options, including face to face and phone contact, should be provided only in "very limited circumstances". Second, by computerizing, it would allow SSA "to employ a much smaller and more virtual workforce". In other words, more layoffs are seen as understandable and inevitable. 

Third, NAPA favors transferring public revenue to the private sector. As one observer noted, the result will be lucrative private sector contracts. Significantly, Congress on the whole share's NAPA's perspective. Despite the substantial increases in social security applicants, Congress has cut 14 of the last 16 SSA budget requests, which has forced the closing of many field offices. But Agency administrators have remained silent while cooperating with policies that retrench services. The same with the President and his administration. Their silence along with their actions reflects the establishment's concurrence with the report's dismal recommendations. 

The consequences will be devastating to many seniors. Only 57 percent of people over 65 years are online compared to a nationwide average of 87percent. Minorities and low income people are even less likely to use computers. Disabled social security applicants and recipients are less likely to be users as well. Many who access the social security website find it very confusing and have to spend very long periods of time on the computer. A critical report complained that by requiring people to fend for themselves it "will cause many to make unwise choices that will result in a permanent loss of benefits and cause alienation from an incredibly popular program".  

It is a matter of principle as well as necessity that we do what we can to stop and reverse the madness of pursuing efficiency and privatization at the expense of both current recipients and applicants. What should we do? To move toward a more moral and sane society we must continually remind ourselves and everybody else that the purpose of government is not to issue dividends but to improve the quality of life of its people. We must act now, which includes engaging in an ongoing discussion among ourselves and with everybody else who wants to make sane public policy prevail.