There’s a lot of talk about budgets in Washington—but budget debates are rarely humanized in ways that people can understand in real life terms. And that’s a problem. Because a wide array of critical agencies across the federal government have been getting systematically underfunded over the years, resulting in very real problems for American families.
A prime example is the Social Security Administration (SSA)—which oversees retirement, disability, and survivors insurance as well as Supplemental Security Income. Since 2010, SSA’s operating budget has been cut by at least 16 percent, adjusting for inflation. Its staffing is down 13 percent, and all while the number of beneficiaries has gone up 21 percent. Why? Because Democrats have failed to get Republicans to join them in increasing SSA’s administrative budget, which is so lean already it’s just 1 percent of the benefits the agency pays out.
What this kind of systematic disinvestment in a key federal agency means in human terms was the subject of a recent congressional hearing held in response to an outcry from constituents across the United States about customer service challenges in accessing Social Security.
Hour-plus long waits, dropped calls, and an often simply nonfunctional 1-800 phone line; unconscionable delays for disability determinations that leave thousands dying every year waiting for desperately needed benefits; and a huge problem with overpayments or underpayments that occur through no fault of the beneficiaries because the agency just doesn’t have the resources and staffing to process earnings reports on time are just a few examples of how this impacts individuals and families.
So for this week’s Off-Kilter, Rebecca sat down with two of the other witnesses from that hearing—Bethany Lilly of The Arc and Tracey Gronniger of Justice in Aging—as well as two of the other top experts on the issue: Kathleen Romig of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Kristen Dama of Community Legal Services, for a look at the human toll of defunding SSA.
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas. We talk a lot about budgets in Washington, D.C., but budget numbers are rarely humanized in ways that people can understand in real-life terms. And that’s a problem because a whole bunch of critical federal agencies have been getting systematically underfunded over recent years, resulting in very real consequences for American families.
This was a big part of the backdrop for Build Back Better that got lost in the shuffle of all of the progressive priorities that Democrats were pushing for. And a prime example with special significance to the disability community is the Social Security Administration, which oversees retirement, disability, and survivors’ insurance, as well as Supplemental Security Income.
Since 2010, the Social Security Administration’s operating budget has been cut by at least 16 percent (adjusted for inflation), its staffing is down 13 percent, and all while the number of beneficiaries is up 21 percent over that same time frame. Why? Because Democrats have failed to get Republicans to join them in doing anything better than flat funding SSA’s already extremely modest administrative budget, which is so lean it’s less than just 1 percent of the benefits the agency pays out.
What this kind of systematic disinvestment in a key federal agency means in human terms was the subject of a recent congressional hearing that I was invited to testify at, along with several other advocates for people with disabilities and seniors, in response to an outcry from constituents across the U.S. about customer service challenges in accessing Social Security. Hour-plus-long waits, dropped calls at an often simply nonfunctional 1-800 phone line, unconscionable delays for disability determinations that leave thousands dying every year waiting for desperately needed benefits, and huge overpayments that occur through no fault of your own, because the agency simply doesn’t have the resources or staffing to process earnings reports on time. These are just a few examples of how defunding Social Security is impacting individuals and families.
So, for this week’s Off-Kilter, I decided to sit down with two of the other witnesses from that hearing. Bethany Lilly of The Arc and Tracey Gronniger of Justice in Aging, as well as two of the other top experts on the issue, Kathleen Romig of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Kristen Dama of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia for a look at the human consequences of defunding Social Security. Let’s take a listen. [upbeat music break]
Tracey, Bethany, Kathleen, Kristen, thank you so much to all of you for taking the time to come on the show, some of you to come back, some for the first time. This is a pretty all-star crowd on this subject, I have to say.
KATHLEEN ROMIG: Aw, thanks.
BETHANY LILLY: Very happy to be here.
KRISTEN DAMA: Thank you for having us.
TRACEY GRONNIGER: Yes, thanks.
VALLAS: Kathleen, I’m gonna go to you first because you’re kind of the queen of the budget numbers when it comes to Social Security, and we all look to you as the person who always knows the most about what’s going on with Social Security’s funding. You actually have a new brief out on this. You’ve been doing a lot of writing about this recently, in large part because the problems are so big, as I mentioned up top. But how bad is the picture for the Social Security Administration’s operating budget, and how did we get here?
ROMIG: Well, it’s pretty bad. Yeah, it’s been SSA’s funding situation has started deteriorating after 2011 and it’s just gotten worse and worse since. And so, where we are now accounting for inflation up to date, it’s about at least 16 percent lower than it was in 2010. In 2010, we had 11 million fewer Social Security beneficiaries, and so we have far fewer resources, far fewer staff serving far more beneficiaries than ever before. And just breaking it down a little bit further, how does SSA spend this money? Well, three quarters of the money, the administrative budget, goes toward hiring staff. It’s the people who answer the phones, the people who take appointments, the people who, when you tell them you have earnings or your circumstances have changed or your husband died and you need a change to your benefits, those are the people who make those changes for you and adjust the amounts of your benefits or make sure that you get those checks in time. And there are thousands fewer of those people now. The number of SSA staff is down 13 percent. The number of disability determination staff in the states is down even more, and that means longer waits for people. It means more problems for people. And it’s just causing an enormous amount of hardship.
VALLAS: And we’re gonna get into all of that, and I definitely wanna also bring you back in to talk a little bit about really kind of the how we got here part in terms of some of the politics. But Bethany and Tracey, I’m gonna bring you both in next because we all testified at a hearing last week. It was the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, and the hearing was really focused on what the huge, huge budget cuts that Kathleen was just describing are translating into in human terms.
And Tracey, I wanna start with you. Justice in Aging represents a huge network of low-income older adults. How is this kind of backdoor budget cut for Social Security that has accumulated over time, how is that impacting older adults, and in particular, low-income older adults of color? What are you hearing from your network?
GRONNIGER: Yeah, it’s bad. I mean. The people who we advocate for, the low-income older adults, are people who really rely on the in-person services and kind of that direct service from SSA in particular to access Supplemental Security Income benefits, which are benefits targeted to very low-income older adults and people with disabilities who don’t have the kind of the access to the Internet, who may have difficulty even getting on the phone because of the challenges of their lives. We had people telling us in our advocate network about low-income, homeless older adults who can’t be on the phone for hours trying to talk to someone at SSA. They need to be able to go and see people in person. And so, when SSA is dealing with these budget cuts and it’s really difficult for people to go to offices and just walk in the door and get assistance, it really affects people’s ability to be able to get these benefits that are really critical to things like housing, food, essentials. And so, that’s something that we have heard a lot from advocates in our network.
And from our perspective, these are low-income, older adults. They’re primarily older women. Over 60 percent of the older adults receiving SSI, for example, are women. And people of color are disproportionately impacted because of kind of that history of systemic discrimination, the racism, the sexism, the things that make people of color and women more likely to age into poverty. And so, these are the people who are having trouble getting these benefits. And we think that that’s something that’s really important to highlight.
VALLAS: And Bethany, I wanna bring you in next here. You’re at The Arc, which is not just an organization that fights on behalf of folks with intellectual and developmental disabilities, it’s also, it’s a huge power player in Washington, really, on behalf of the entire disability community. Talk a little bit about how this is impacting people with disabilities. You painted a pretty grim picture at the hearing last week.
LILLY: Well, I think in many ways it’s affecting them exactly as Tracey just described. Many people with disabilities are gonna need that in-person assistance, and they’re not able to access it. And I really appreciate Tracey highlighting all those issues ‘cause I think many of them are also the case for people with disabilities. But there are also people with disabilities who are trying to get through on the phone lines. Many people with disabilities rely on Social Security Disability or SSI to pay their rent and buy their groceries. And they, you know, if they’re working, many of the folks in my network have jobs. They’re part-time jobs. They can’t always work more than five or 10 hours a week, but it’s important for them to have those jobs. And they’re supposed to be reporting their income every month. So, they do that. They call in, they report their income, and because SSA can’t answer the phones, they don’t have enough staff—and honestly, there are plenty of problems with the phones themselves and the technology that SSA is using because again, you need to have sufficient resources to be able to update that technology—that my folks who are calling in to try and do the, you know, follow the rules, do the right thing, they’re getting hit with underpayments. They’re getting hit with overpayments. They’re having to deal day in and day out with complications to their benefits because SSA can’t staff the phones and the field offices to the degree that they need to without additional investments.
And it’s not just folks who are already on the program who are running into these issues. I think it’s really important, and this was something that I think you actually highlighted, Vallas, during the hearing, people are dying, waiting for disability benefits. We have a huge backlog right now in initial cases, so that first decision, and then the reconsideration decision level. Together, those cases just hit a million. And so, there is a huge backlog of people trying to get into the system. And those folks, they have, very, very many of them have very significant health conditions, very significant disabilities. Estimates from the Government Accountability Office say that over the past decade, thousands, hundreds of thousands of people have died. And that’s exactly what we’re gonna see if we don’t get people through the system more rapidly and we don’t have those sufficient investments in making sure that SSA has the staff and the technology to do their jobs and do their jobs well.
VALLAS: The number that really, to me, should be keeping everybody up at night—and which I know we all talked about at last week’s hearing, but I just I really feel like it bears repeating because it’s such a horrible, horrible statistic, and it so underscores what you’re speaking about there, Bethany, with just the, just one example of the impact of underfunding this agency—which is the huge, huge delays that people are facing in accessing disability benefits. The Government Accountability Office actually took a look to finally put numbers to the thing that we all knew was happening, that advocates have known and people with disabilities have known for a long time was happening, which was, as you said, that people are dying waiting for disability benefits. And GAO ended up looking at this and found that between 2008 and 2020, I believe were the years 100 and—Excuse me. No, I think that’s right—109,000+ people with disabilities died waiting for disability benefits through SSI or through Social Security Disability Insurance. The number has only continued to climb since then.
And it’s the kind of thing that, to me, if we were to hear that kind of a number about another country, we would go, “Man, that’s terrible. Wow, they really don’t know how to run that program, do they? Or they really don’t care about disabled people in that country.” But that’s what’s happening here in the U.S. Those kinds of numbers are on our current elected officials’ watch.
And Tracey, I wanna bring you back in, because some of the examples that Bethany was describing were also issues that you really spoke about at length at the hearing, that 1-800 number, for example. I mean, people are reporting that they try the 1-800 number over and over again and just can’t get through. That’s a huge problem, especially for the population you fight for of low-income older adults because so many don’t have Internet access, right?
GRONNIGER: Yeah, we heard so much from advocates about the troubles with the phone systems and how it just spent, there was so much time wasted trying to get through, spending hours on the phone, time that people don’t have, that they really lose because they’re trying to get these benefits, and they’re just being kind of put on hold. Or they have a call that’s finally answered, and then it’s disconnected, and they have to start over again from scratch. Which, I mean, it wastes their time. It wastes SSA’s time, too. I mean, these are administrative costs that now someone has to go back and start this process all over again to try to do what could be a simple thing.
We had one person who talked about a client of theirs who was in between housing and had gone to three different Social Security offices over the phone, had called. They called various offices, and they were being basically pushed from one office to the other office. And it was just hours of time on the phone that was wasted. And luckily, they were finally able to get into an office and talk to someone in person. And they said once they talked to an actual claims representative who could process that person’s paperwork, they were able to kind of put all of these issues into one kind of case, really process everything that needed to be processed. He already had basically been awarded benefits. He just needed to actually get some paperwork done to actually get the amount settled. And then they even were able to do a housing application notice of benefits. So, they were able to process another piece of paperwork that would’ve been a whole nother series of phone calls and other things. And so, just being able to do that is so important to people. Otherwise, they’re basically stuck waiting months and months for benefits that they may have already been, you know, someone may have already found that they deserve these benefits and that they’re eligible for these benefits, and it’s just a matter of just all of that administrative burden to make it happen.
VALLAS: Kristen, I wanna bring you in next because you’re at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. You play a national role in this work. CLS really plays a national role in this work. But you’re also a legal aid provider. So, you guys, unlike the rest of us who are part of this conversation today, you currently see clients and CLS sees clients every day who are facing these kinds of problems. I mentioned up top, and it bears repeating, the Social Security Administration was already woefully underfunded long before the pandemic. Kathleen spoke to that, too. But then the pandemic hit. And a big part of how that impacted Social Security was that it actually closed its entire network of what are known as field offices, what people generally think of as their local Social Security office. Those offices were closed for quite some time, actually, until this April. But how has the pandemic impacted the agency more broadly? And do you believe that the pandemic has made the challenges that we’ve already been hearing about from Tracey and from Bethany and from Kathleen, even greater from what you’re seeing with your clients?
DAMA: Yeah, I think that Tracey and Bethany have said a lot of really true things for what we see on the ground here in Philadelphia. We are, as you say, we do a lot of national policy work around the Social Security Administration and its operations. But we also do about 1,100 SSI cases every year, a blend of disability applications, disability appeals, and then the financial eligibility cases for people who get benefits but run into roadblocks or red tape once they’re eligible. And I think one of the things that’s really important to note is that for a subset of people—especially our clients, Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the country. We have lots of folks who don’t have Internet access, who don’t have cell phone minutes—the only way they’ve ever been able to access Social Security is to walk in. And we have an entire safety net that’s built around people taking notices that they can’t read because it’s not in their language, or maybe they’re not appropriate for their levels of literacy and having somebody at the front desk or a security guard reading those papers to people and trying to help them understand what the heck’s going on with their case. And so, when the offices shut down a couple years ago, that just went away. And it’s not like the questions went away or the confusion went away or the need for help went away. It’s just that the system became completely inaccessible for a huge number of people with various barriers.
And I think we just see the ripple effects of that constantly in everything we do. I mean, we do lots and lots of cases. It’s sort of a truism about Social Security cases that they’re very complex, especially the disability appeals. And they require a lawyer, and they shouldn’t require a lawyer. But we used to be able to focus on the really complex stuff, stuff where you kind of do need a law degree to do it, even though maybe you shouldn’t. And what we’ve been doing over the last couple years is just trying to make sure that people have basic access to stay connected to their income. And so, people can’t file appeals because the only way to file appeals is through a very complex online system or by calling Social Security, if you don’t have the Internet and a printer and asking them to mail you a form. And that assumed that you had high levels of literacy, you had Internet, you could get through on the phones, which we’ve just heard you can’t do, and that the mail works. And the mail hasn’t been working, especially in urban areas like Philadelphia. And so, over the last couple years, we’ve had to shift from representing people in hearings, as many hearings as we normally do, just to help people file appeals, which is something we never used to do. We’d say, “Go into the office, and Social Security will help you. And if you run into problems, come back.” And so, what that means is it’s the ripple effects. When Social Security is inaccessible, it means that every piece of the system becomes inaccessible, because places like mine that don’t have enough resources can’t help people the way that we want to or need to.
VALLAS: And I realize that part of what we haven’t done yet in this conversation—but I know, Kathleen, you can probably rattle these numbers off in your sleep—we should probably do a little bit of who are Social Security and SSI beneficiaries, because it’s a huge number of people who are impacted by all of what we’re talking about. This isn’t some small population impacted by some small special interest program, right? I mean, this is Social Security that we’re talking about. This is retirement, this is survivors, this is disability, and then, of course, the SSI program, too. Kathleen, do you wanna do a quick like who are Social Security and SSI beneficiaries, so we have a sense of who we’re talking about here?
ROMIG: Sure. About 65 million people get Social Security. The majority of those people are older, but it’s not just older people. It’s also people with disabilities who get SSDI or Social Security Disability benefits. It’s children whose parents died. It’s widows and widowers. Tons of people, of course, in every community. And SSI is at roughly 9 million people, 1 million children with significant disabilities, all of them poor and with very few assets. And yeah, and there’s some overlap, like you said, but it affects every community. It affects every political stripe, every age, every race, every gender, all kinds of different circumstances. But the thing that unites them is everyone is older or has a disability or has lost a loved one prematurely.
VALLAS: So, with that as a snapshot of why this is so big, everybody is actually being impacted by it in some way, shape, or form, right? If not you directly, probably a family member or a neighbor, so forth.
I’m gonna stay with you for a moment there, Kathleen, and I’m gonna go back to the question that we sort of started to get to before, but which I wanna dig into just a little bit, which is why? Why have we gotten here? How, [laughing] how have we gotten to this place where we’re seeing this agency just being starved of basic resources and really doing its damnedest to try to keep the walls up and the roof on, right? But really struggling at a time where, as you noted before, beneficiaries are up, right? So, budget is down at SSA, staffing is down at SSA, but beneficiaries are up because population growth, but also the baby boom, the huge baby boom, right? We’ve got, I believe, according to your numbers, a 21-percent increase in beneficiaries over the same period of time that we’ve seen that 16-percent or possibly higher decrease in SSA’s operating budget once you adjust for inflation. Why has SSA’s operating budget been so damn underfunded for so long? And how much money does the agency actually need? I ask that question recognizing this stuff gets a little bit arcane, and once you start getting into how does money actually get appropriated in Washington, people’s eyes generally glaze over. But I know you are someone who is very, very good at breaking all of this down.
ROMIG: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think this story really starts in 2011. So, that is, 2010 was the high water mark for SSA budget and also for SSA staff. And then the Congress started putting what they called discretionary budget caps. So, that’s like this annual appropriations, how much each program gets each year, the parts of the discretionary budget, the part that we appropriate every year, they put these strict caps on those things. And so, then SSA ended up competing within its appropriations bill with all of these other very worthy things, things like Pell Grants and things like medical research. In all cases, it’s in the bill called Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, so all kinds of really worthy programs. And every year they had to fight basically for scraps, and every year, pretty much, SSA came out near the bottom. And that happened again this year that President Biden, the House appropriators, and the Senate appropriators, each of them either requested or passed a budget for SSA that was about a billion more than they got last year. But in the end, SSA was fighting for scraps. They ended up with far less to spend than anybody had allocated for them. And it was just another, for regular operating expenses, for all of the things that we’ve been talking about, picking up phones and taking appointments and all of the other things, sending mail or all the other things that SSA does, they ended up getting a mere 2.5-percent increase, and everybody knows that inflation this year is way more than 2.5.
And so, the problem is this fighting for scraps, and it’s just not, you know, there’s no reason for this. SSA, the Social Security program, can draw its administrative funding from the Social Security trust funds. There is substantial money in those trust funds. The program spends less than 1 percent of total benefits every year on administering the program. We could afford to do more. It’s just that Congress has chosen again and again not to.
VALLAS: That 1 percent stat always feels to me like it’s worth repeating and underscoring. Chairman Larson, who runs the Social Security Subcommittee of Ways and Means, which held that hearing that we talked a little bit about last week, kind of gave a big speech from the dais last week, which was right on. If it’s kind of hard to imagine a corporate insurance plan at the size that Social Security is running with 1 percent operating costs, right? That’s just not something that exists in the corporate world. So, just kind of worth thinking about given that there’s often that Republican cry to privatize and “Oh, we could do it much more efficiently if this were Wall Street,” right? Well, I think we would be hard pressed to see Wall Street do it much more efficiently than a 1-percent operating budget compared to benefit payouts.
But I wanna throw out just kind of one other frame for this, the full panel to react to, for anyone who wants to comment. It’s hard for me to look at what has happened to Social Security with all of that context that Kathleen just provided, which obviously, it’s a bigger conversation than Social Security. There’s lots of other stuff being underfunded as well across the federal government because of the austerity that has been manufactured by those caps that Kathleen was explaining. But is it fair to say—’cause this is sort of how I look at what’s happened and see it politically—is it fair to say, and do you guys view this as sort of part of the Grover Norquist shrink government down to the size where it can be drowned in a bathtub playbook that we all know so well in a way that we might be seeing the kind of first step, first stage before Republicans come back and say, “Okay, now we need to privatize this program. Look, it doesn’t work. The federal government can’t administer this. This would be better done by Wall Street.” Is that actually something that you guys think is part of what’s going on here as well? And I’ll offer that to anyone who wants to comment.
GRONNIGER: I mean, I would say that it’s always on the table whenever there’s a conversation that involves kind of the conservative viewpoint, like, “Why don’t we privatize? [laughs] What’s wrong with privatization?” And I think that it is a way to say that things aren’t working. You know, you break it, and you say it’s not working, and then you offer the thing that you wanted to do instead. I think that’s right. And I think there’s a lot of kind of secret ways of privatizing that people have offered so that it seems like you’re responding to a problem, and in fact, you’re not. You’re actually just trying to implement the bad solution that you had ready in the wings. So, yeah, I think that that’s definitely a piece of the answer.
DAMA: Also, feel like Social Security is in some ways the perfect intersection of a lot of really everybody’s favorite tropes about the American safety net. So, I think we do have the privatization and this idea of big government and unionized government workers who just need to work harder. So, I certainly think that’s a big piece of it. But I also think that the SSI program in particular has just been riddled with misconceptions, and especially in the children’s SSI program, coded racial language about the way that that happens with any safety net benefit and particularly safety net benefits that are geared toward low-income people and low-income families. And I know, Rebecca, you did a lot, have done a lot of work over your career around pushing back on attacks against the kids’ SSI program, but I do think that those attacks, even as successful as you and others have been in showing that first of all, SSI is very a difficult program to qualify for. There is no gaming happening. It takes years and years and standards that can be very impossible to meet, even for people who are clearly, clearly eligible.
I do think that it’s created, even among champions of the program, some wariness about pushing too hard to protect it. And I’m just really grateful for these spaces. I think it’s really important that we as advocates spend a lot of time thinking and talking about who’s affected when we don’t protect these programs. Because there are so many ways in which we have dismantled the American safety net over the last few decades, and SSI is really one of the last pieces of the safety net that exist. And so, it’s really devastating for those of us who work in poverty spaces to watch it be chipped away by neglect and administrative burdens when, in many respects, it’s all that we have left.
VALLAS: And Kristen, you make such an important point, which also then gets into sort of a larger point. It isn’t just that even fighting to defend SSI has been something that some policymakers have been wary of because of the attacks, the racialized attacks on the program, the sort of welfarizing attacks on the program over the years. It also is that outreach has almost become a dirty word. The very concept that maybe we should have the Social Security Administration trying to reach out to likely eligible folks to ensure that these benefits that can mean the difference between someone having a roof over their head, someone being able to put food on the table, someone being able to be healthy, healthier, and more well, relative to their disability status versus not because of whether they can access medical care. I mean, the list goes on and on in terms of why SSI is literally a life-changing program.
But as you know better than anyone, and as this whole panel has all been trying to raise awareness about, about half of eligible individuals have been left behind by the SSI program over the years—that’s a pre-pandemic number—in large part because of barriers to accessing benefits like you guys have been talking about, but also lack of awareness that people are eligible for this incredibly important, often survival income-providing program. And that’s something that we’ve seen made even more problematic and concerning during the pandemic when SSI enrollment and applications hit historic lows per capita at a time when we knew more people should’ve been eligible, not fewer, because of the huge increase in hardship nationally. So, I just wanna create a moment here for all of you and anyone else who wants to weigh in on what’s been going on with SSI or disability benefit more broadly, ‘cause we’ve seen some real gaps in DI reaching eligible folks too, and how outreach connects to the conversation that we’re having right now. So, anyone else who wants to weigh in on that, too.
LILLY: Well, I think this all goes back to the discussion we’ve been having about the folks who walk into the offices. Because you can’t apply for SSI, by and large, I mean, in the vast majority of cases, online. That seems like it should be a really basic thing, right? Like, we can apply for SSI, this fundamental program that helps kids with disabilities and older adults and adult people with disabilities, we should be able to apply online. But that is not an option with SSI for almost everyone. And that in of itself is an outreach technique, right? It’s making sure that when legal services folks are talking to someone and they’re like, “Oh, you probably are eligible. All right, let’s start your application online. We can go from there.” And that’s just not happening. That’s why we’ve seen that half a million people who should be eligible for either SSI or SSDI not applying. And so, if you’re not even taking kind of those baseline steps.
And I think this gets into our discussion earlier about death via neglect. Because SSI as a program also hasn’t been updated in several decades. I mean, there are parts of SSI that haven’t been updated since 1972, and that creates problems within the programs. Like, you have a $2,000 asset limit. Yeah, you might go over that because you have a stimulus check deposited, and that is gonna create eligibility problems for you even though it shouldn’t, because the system is so old and can’t turn on a dime to react to stimulus checks. So, to me, I see these all, like outreach and then also the program itself, being able to work well and to function well.
VALLAS: Yeah, you make hugely important points. And of course, it all comes back full circle, right? Because also, if you were to do things like update the SSI program, it would be an easier program for the agency to administer. And right now—I mean, Kathleen, I’m sure you’ve got statistics on this—administering SSI takes a huge amount of Social Security’s time and bandwidth, even though it’s just a tiny program relative to all of what the agency actually administers.
VALLAS: And I think that’s something, Kathleen, you always talk about.
ROMIG: Exactly. SSI benefits are only 5 percent of the benefits that Social Security Administration pays, but it takes up 35 percent of the administrative budget to administer it because it is so complicated! That’s one of the reasons that the application is not online. It should be, of course, but because it is so convoluted. I was just looking at the questions on assets today. There are literally dozens of questions about assets. The things that they ask people. They ask, “Do you have a, have you pre-purchased a burial plot? Do you have stocks, bonds,” this kind of investment, that kind of investment? We’re talking about people who by definition are very poor. If you meet the income criteria for SSI, it’s likely that your savings is absolutely zero. Most people have almost nothing to speak of, and yet they have dozens of questions for which they have to provide paperwork to prove a negative that they don’t have these things. And it’s extraordinarily convoluted and complicated. And they don’t just have to do it once. They have to go back for redeterminations and check to make sure that they continue to be eligible. They have to, every time their circumstances change, whether it’s financial or their family or their living situation, they have to go back and update SSA and so adjustments can be made if necessary. It’s just extraordinarily burdensome for beneficiaries and extraordinarily inefficient for SSA.
VALLAS: And just hugely, hugely burdensome in ways that are really needless, right? It’s one of the most expensive needle-in-a-haystack operations we have in current form in the federal government right now, right? But there’s so much more we could say, and there’s plenty more time to keep kind of bringing these themes in.
But I wanna also make sure that in what’s left of our time, that we also get to talk to some of the solutions, which a lot of you have really been leaders in crafting and advancing on Capitol Hill and with the current administration. Obviously, the agency needs more money. All of us are in agreement about this. But there are also some new ideas that each of you have been pushing that are starting to gain traction and which could make a real difference when it comes to benefits access. We’ve talked before on this show many times, including with several of you, about how eligibility doesn’t necessarily equal access. And that’s really the gap that you all spend a lot of time working to close.
Bethany, I’m gonna go to you first, because one of the ideas that really started to gain some steam in the past couple of months, and which got a huge shoutout at the hearing last week, was the idea of creating a beneficiary advocate at the Social Security Administration, something kind of similar to what we have over at the IRS. Talk a little bit about that idea and some of where it came from and what you see as the path forward there. How would that make a difference given that obviously, this agency needs more money to run its programs, but this seems to be something that could be a step in the right direction?
LILLY: Well, I think one of the things that we certainly noticed during the pandemic as we were working with the Social Security Administration was that there wasn’t inside the agency a voice where that person’s job was to present all of the problems that we have just spent time discussing: those problems with the phones, the problems with in-person service. We don’t have that voice inside the agency. And yes, there are plenty of folks at SSA, great employees, who care a lot about making sure that beneficiaries get what they need, but having someone whose job it is to focus on the beneficiary experience, to make sure that beneficiaries’ concerns and the problems they’re running into are getting highlighted at the highest levels of the Social Security Administration, we don’t have that. And we really appreciated Senator Brown and Senator Wyden and Senator Casey for being really interested in this idea. They did a letter a couple of months ago, back in March—I can’t believe it’s already May—but highlighting that creating this kind of a position would be really useful given, especially right now, all of the problems coming out of the pandemic. We saw that that deficit in applications that should’ve been received, having somebody who could be talking within the agency about how to remedy that deficit, how to make sure that we’re doing the outreach that really, really needs to be done.
I think of it from the perspective of a lot of people with disabilities, right? We want someone in the agency explaining this is, for people with disabilities, a big problem. And so, we wanna make sure that we have that voice in the agency. And I think that’s what the beneficiary advocate would do. We were really excited that Chairman Larson and many of the other Democrats on Ways and Means decided to send a letter on this issue as a response to the hearing. And that was amazing. They’re joining their Senate colleagues. And so, I’m really feeling good about the traction here.
And I just wanna say I do think that this is something that the White House should be considering as they’re thinking about ways to improve SSA and thinking about ways that we could be making sure that that voice of the people for the people would be inside the agency. And I really appreciate that we have the taxpayer advocate model because they also do a lot of things that I, in my job, would find really helpful, like sending reports to Congress saying, hey, here are the problems the agency is going through. And those kind of reports can really help our advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill by making sure that those issues are getting highlighted. So, I’m really excited about this proposal, and I was really glad to see a lot of the folks we were appearing before also excited about the proposal.
VALLAS: Yeah, that was definitely wonderful to see and kind of a common-sense idea, right? The idea of having a dedicated voice for beneficiaries at an agency that is pushing money out the door to 65 million+ beneficiaries, as Kathleen was enumerating before. So, very excited to see it start to gain some traction, obviously, very hopeful that we will see President Biden take action there. This is not some big, newfangled idea that we have never heard about until now. This is something that others, including former agency officials like David Weaver, who is a huge champion for the idea of a beneficiary advocate, have been calling for, for years. So, really excited to see this moment when the agency is in such a challenging place be one where folks are starting to pay attention and realize that beneficiaries need a dedicated voice within the agency.
Kristen, I wanna go to you next because another idea that has started to gain some real traction, and which we actually saw member after member after member of Congress at last week’s hearing saying, “This is what we need,” in addition to the idea of a beneficiary advocate is an idea for creating what some people have been calling, including you, a navigators program that could help people who have been left behind, in particular by the SSI program, which as you were talking about before, is missing so many folks who are eligible just because of red tape. Talk a little bit about this idea for a navigators program, which we’re now starting to see members of Congress say is part of what we need to see happen at Social Security.
DAMA: Sure. And it’s not a new idea or an idea that hasn’t been done elsewhere. There’s a lot of government programs that are very complex and require lots of expertise to navigate them in other contexts. So, we see a navigator program with the VITA program with the IRS. We saw one, and see it in various formats, with Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act. The veterans’ benefits have a navigator component to them. And so, it feels like a very natural fit for the Social Security program, for the SSI program. I think some of that is more legal services. As I’ve said earlier, we try to take a lot of cases, and there just aren’t enough of us. We’re lucky that there are some really high-quality lawyers who operate in Social Security cases that operate on a fee basis. But there’s lots of cases that aren’t fee generating. And so, you need legal services, or there’s no access in those cases.
And then I think, though, that lawyers are only a piece of this. I think a big problem is that Social Security and SSI cases really do best when there’s a case management or a social service component to it or a social work component to it. And there are some really great social workers and case managers working with the disability community in lots of contexts: in the reentry context, in the mental health care context, in lots of, in the homeless services context, and the reunification, the family advocacy context. But there are, those settings, they’ve got a lot going on, and lots of those are full-time jobs for the people in those jobs. And it can be very hard to sort of dabble in SSI work because it is so complicated. And so, what I think a navigator program can do is help those agencies that are already working with people who are likely SSI eligible or maybe on SSI to build out capacity to get more resources into those places so that there can be a real focus on that SSI navigation piece as part of a holistic service model.
VALLAS: A ton more that can be said about that, but such an exciting idea, given how transformational it could be for folks who, you know better than anyone, ‘cause you’re really on the front lines, Kristen, seeing folks who are getting wrongfully denied every single day, just in a lot of cases because the application process is so convoluted, to use Kathleen’s word, right, and so complicated. You shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to get disability benefits. Sing it with me now. We all sing that song. But a navigators program could obviously be really, really, really a huge game changer.
Kathleen, I wanna go to you next because another idea—and this is a little bit of a different, this is a little bit of a switching gears. It’s not quite the same school of ideating that Bethany and Kristen were talking about, which are a little bit more of the operations side—but another idea that also is really starting to actually get some, not just some steam, but some bipartisan steam, is the idea of finally starting to update the SSI program, as you and Bethany and Kristen and Tracey have all spoken about in little ways, specifically the idea of updating SSI’s asset limits, which have not been increased since 1989. That’s actually an idea that now has bipartisan support for the first time, an idea that obviously is good for beneficiaries, but would also, as you were describing, simplify access to this program. Talk a little bit about what we’re hearing there and how that idea is now starting to crop up in bipartisan circles.
ROMIG: Yeah. So, SSI was signed into law in 1972; that is 50 years ago. There are things that have not been updated once since then. The asset limits, like you said, have been updated precisely one time, in 1989. Had they been updated since 1972 instead of being at $2,000 for an individual and $3,000 for a couple—which is just unimaginably low. That includes any cash you have under your mattress, that includes your savings account, your checking account. And like I said before, very few SSI beneficiaries have any assets of any other kind, but any kind of retirement savings account. I mean, IRAs didn’t even exist in 1972, nor did 401(k)s. These were things that didn’t even exist when the law was established. But all of that counts toward the SSI asset limits—and so, had they been updated, it would be $10,000 for an individual. And there is a marriage penalty inherent in SSI asset limits. And so, it’s $3,000 for a married couple. And the proposal that we’re looking at would get rid of that marriage penalty. So, that couple limit would be twice the individual limit. It would be $20,000. And then they would be, both of those numbers would be indexed to inflation. So, the value of the asset limit would not erode over the years as it has done in the decades since 1989.
So, like you said, this idea has bipartisan support. It’s being, the effort’s being led by the two senators from Ohio, Senator Brown, who’s a Democrat and Senator Portman, who’s a Republican. And we’re seeing so much enthusiasm from think tankers and economists and analysts from all sides of the political spectrum. We’re talking. We’re having conversations and seeing people writing and tweeting from places like the Niskanen Center and AEI and staffers for Republican senators and different people. It’s not just the usual disability advocate community, but lots of people who are saying, “This doesn’t make sense. We wanna encourage people to save. We want people to work and invest. We want people to be able to support themselves in the case of an emergency. And this just doesn’t make sense.” And so, the hope is that when the Senate takes up the retirement legislation that the House recently passed overwhelmingly, that they would put a pro-savings proposal for the people who are, you know, have the least, who are the most financially precarious and who have the biggest barriers to saving.
VALLAS: Well, and you’re obviously talking about something that for those of us who do this work every day and who’ve been doing this work for quite some time, it’s very exciting because the prospect of bipartisan support for updating SSI, for updating any part of this long-forgotten program is incredibly new, incredibly exciting, and it’s gonna need to happen and to increase if we’re actually gonna see anything done. But we also are hopeful that maybe it’s not just prohibiting people from saving that we start to get bipartisan support. We’re also hoping that the idea of adequately funding an agency as critical as Social Security, so that Congress can adequately say to its constituents that it’s actually delivering on Social Security’s promises, we’re hopeful that that actually is a conversation that could gain bipartisan interest and support as well. It started to sound like maybe Republicans at the hearing last week were at least willing to agree that funding SSA adequately is part of the solution. That’s maybe a rosier answer than we’ve heard from that side of the aisle in Congress in some time.
But Kathleen, do we expect SSA to actually get more money in the appropriations cycle that Congress is working through right now? Curious if you wanna look in your crystal ball or if anyone else does to share a read on kind of what we should be looking at and watching for in the coming weeks and months. So, Kathleen, I’m gonna go to you with that first, ‘cause I know you think about this every single day.
ROMIG: Yeah, I’m hopeful. You know, like I said earlier, certainly President Biden supports the significant increase. Once again, he’s proposing over $1 billion increase in SSA administrative funding for this year. Appropriators in both houses last year did propose a significant boost, and at the very last minute, it got negotiated out. But I think this year I’ve seen more attention to SSA service delivery problems in the press and on Capitol Hill than I have in all the years that I’ve been following this. I think the pandemic-related disruptions and just the cumulative effect of these budget cuts has really led to a crisis of the agency, and more people are paying attention, more people are concerned, and more people are looking for answers. So, I am hopeful. And I’m also really hopeful to see all of the advocacy among all the people on this call and from people all over the country who are suffering in these service declines, who are saying, “We deserve better.”
GRONNIGER: And I think that that was something that actually came up during the hearing, Rebecca, that you had all the members of Congress talking about their constituents calling them and complaining about the trouble that they were having and the problem with SSA not having the ability to provide the customer service that everyone kind of expects for them to provide. You know, you shouldn’t have to call a member of Congress to get help from Social Security, and I think all of the members of the Congress saw that and were talking about that.
VALLAS: Yeah, it’s a great point, Tracey. I mean, there is no moment quite like when members of Congress’s phones are ringing off the hooks with their constituents saying, “I can’t get through to Social Security,” or “my benefits are getting screwed up,” for folks of all political stripes to realize this is not a Democratic issue. This is not a Republican issue. This is an everyone issue that everyone in Congress should definitely be caring about right now.
VALLAS: I don’t know if anyone else wants to comment on that. Bethany, I know you’ve got a team at The Arc who lobbies on this every single day because it’s so important to the disability community. Are you feeling hopeful that the message might actually be getting through to Republicans?
LILLY: I think so. And to your points about the members talking about this, it’s really clear that members of Congress are getting a lot of pressure on this right now. And I will never forget a member of Congress saying, “Yeah. So, my constituent wanted to change his bank information where his Social Security check goes, but apparently, that’s not something Social Security can do right now. So, we had to get involved.” You know, when those kind of basic functions aren’t working, I think that’s when you really have a shot at getting Congress to pay attention to something they really should’ve been paying attention to for the past 10 years when it comes to funding, but also for the past 50 years for other changes that we should be seeing.
VALLAS: So, in the last few minutes that I have with all of you—and I wish we had longer because there’s a lot more we could get into for sure—but I wanna close on the note of asking each of you what your advice is to progressives so that we can do, frankly, a better job of communicating about budget issues that are as important as this one in a way that people understand the stakes. I mentioned up top, and I’ll say again, it’s pretty much universally true that folks’ eyes just kind of glaze over when budget comes up and the way the mainstream media generally covers these issues. Sure, there are numbers that get thrown around, dollars and cents, but it rarely seems like it actually means anything in kitchen table terms. And obviously, if voters are not aware of what’s going on and in a way that’s connected to the policy choices underpinning why we’re seeing service declines so dramatically at this incredibly important agency, we’re never gonna see the kind of accountability that we need within Congress to see changes get made and funding finally get increased.
So, curious to give each of you a chance as we sort of do a closing lightning round here of what’s your advice to progressives about how we can be doing a better job of communicating about budget issues that are as important as this one in a way that people actually understand them as connected to their lives. And I’m gonna go first to Kristen with that one.
DAMA: Sure. So, especially we lawyers, we like to get deep in the weeds and talk about citations and these little arcane policies that we know have huge impacts, because lots of people get denied in the Social Security system for very arcane reasons. But I think that we are successful in protecting the program and advancing the program when you really convey the stakes and when we really focus on the values that underlie this program. I think Americans and people who live in the U.S. deserve a safety net that functions, especially for disabled people and their families. And that’s really what we’re talking about, is a basic safety net program that helps people pay bills and live with dignity. And I think if we can kind of really focus on that and maybe not do that lawyer thing where we veer into the weeds, I do think that this is something that the vast majority of people in politics and just in communities agree with.
VALLAS: And Tracey, I’m gonna go to you next with the same question.
GRONNIGER: Yeah, I so agree with Kristen about focusing on the people and focusing on the real-life stakes of it and not getting as weedy and into the numbers. What do we value as a country? Do we want older adults not able to afford to live in our communities? Do we want them to not be able to have enough money to eat? This is why we have to provide. We can’t underfund the agencies that make sure that that doesn’t happen. And so, I think really getting down to the people and the values of our country is something that we have to do a better job of so that then, people are saying that. And how we get there, you know, they may not have the budget numbers, but they know that it’s something that’s important. And I think that’s something we’ve heard, that people don’t necessarily say, “SSA is a priority.” We need to have people who are saying that, “These are the priorities. How do you make this happen?” And then it happens because you need SSA, and you need these services to be able to realize that. So, I think that that’s a really important part of it.
VALLAS: And Bethany, I’m gonna go to you next, and then Kathleen, you’re gonna get the last word. Bethany, we did some polling at The Century Foundation in partnership with Data for Progress, and I know you’re aware of this ‘cause it was released as part of the launch of the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative just about a month ago. But we asked disabled voters how they feel things are going, and we found that just one in three disabled voters believe that our leaders in Washington care about people with disabilities. Perhaps that’s unsurprising when folks are listening to this conversation and hearing how critical programs and agencies that are so important for the disability community in particular are being treated/not ignored and left to wither on the vine because of neglect. Talk a little bit about how you think that we can be doing better in a way that helps disabled voters understand what a core issue funding this agency appropriately is, even though it usually sounds like such a wonky, Washington D.C., inside the beltway conversation.
LILLY: I think a large part of it, I mean, I completely agree with everything that Kristen and Tracey said about centering the lived experiences that people are having. ‘Cause if you’ve talked to anyone with a disability who’s on SSI, they can tell you every single problem the agency has. And I think it’s pretty straightforward for them to draw that line to, oh, the agency’s been underfunded. Okay, no, that makes sense. And so, I think about it a lot in addition to focusing on the people and their lived experience, on focusing on what does the, you know, are we creating unnecessary barriers here? I mean, I borrowed a line from you and from Matthew Cortland to use in my testimony about you shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to navigate these programs. And that’s where the budget comes in, is it can simplify things. It can make sure that you can file an SSI application online, that the phones work, and that there are enough staff to answer the phones. So, those simple adjustments from thinking about SSI as just this impossible program to thinking about SSI actually as a program that just really needs some attention and focus from Congress, and that’s how we see this progress. That’s how we see the program not require a law degree to get through.
VALLAS: And Kathleen, you’re gonna get the last word, but we’ve only got 30 seconds for it, so make it good!
ROMIG: Yeah, I think just connecting the dots here, just like everybody is saying, from these big numbers to the actual people. That when you cut funding, you have thousands of fewer staff. When you have fewer staff, you have fewer people answering the phones. You have people waiting six months or more on average for a decision on their disability case. When you see the human cost of all of this, I think, is when you really can make a change.
VALLAS: Kathleen Romig leads Social Security and disability policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. You’ve also been hearing from Tracey Gronniger, who directs economic justice issues at Justice in Aging, Kristen Dama, who leads the Medical Legal Partnership and also the SSI program at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia—my very proud legal aid alma mater, I always have to note—and Bethany Lilly, last but certainly not least, is Bethany, what is your title at The Arc these days?
LILLY: It actually just changed. So, thank you for asking. It’s senior director of public policy.
VALLAS: I knew you had a big, fancy new title, and it barely scratches the surface of everything that you hold there. I am so grateful to all of you for taking the time to come on to break all of this down in human terms, but most importantly, for all of your advocacy to try to get this important agency more resources so that beneficiaries can actually access the Social Security that they’ve been promised, and importantly, SSI, too. Thanks to all of you. I love having all of you as colleagues, and I am really grateful for your time today. [theme music returns]
DAMA: Thanks for having us.
LILLY: Always happy to join.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the indefatigable Abby Grimshaw. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.