Some Members of Congress have expressed concern about whether the Social Security Administration (SSA) has adequate resources to manage its workloads. The agency has struggled to provide quality service to the public. Backlogs in the disability programs have caused widespread concern. SSA’s efforts to ensure the accuracy of benefit payments have declined. Many applicants and beneficiaries have experienced long waits at field offices and on the phone.
SSA’s workloads are growing as the population increases, the baby boomers retire, the economic situation worsens, and the agency takes on new and more complex responsibilities. SSA’s primary workload is administering the Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs. In addition, SSA provides substantial administrative support to Medicare and other programs, and partners with the Department of Homeland Security in verifying employment eligibility.
The resources SSA has to meet its growing workloads include funding, staff, infrastructure, and management. In recent years, SSA’s administrative funding has increased, but has generally fallen short of requests by the SSA Commissioner and the Bush Administration. SSA’s FY2008 appropriation was the first time that Congress appropriated at or above the President’s budget request in over ten years. SSA’s staffing levels have decreased overall and fluctuated among the specialized staff who manage key workloads; at the same time, SSA’s productivity has increased, according to agency measures. The agency has gradually modernized its technological infrastructure and made efforts to streamline its processes, but independent analysts have argued that these initiatives fall short of what is needed to meet SSA’s growing workloads.
Congress could facilitate changes at SSA through the appropriations and oversight processes. Options for congressional action include changing the amount of SSA’s administrative expenses and how they are financed. For example, the Social Security Advisory Board (SSAB) has recommended that Congress increase funding for SSA’s administrative expenses, arguing that the agency does not have adequate resources. The board has also suggested excluding SSA’s administrative costs from discretionary spending caps. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has recommended dedicating funds for program integrity. Congress could also use its oversight powers to encourage more effective management at SSA in areas such as implementing technological improvements, streamlining processes, and recruiting and retaining key staff.
Congress could decide not to take any action. However, inaction would likely have consequences. As SSA’s workloads increase, it is unlikely that the agency would be able to reduce the backlogs in the disability programs, and possible that the backlogs would grow further, resulting in longer waits for potential beneficiaries. Managing growing workloads could also preclude efforts to maintain or increase the program integrity activities that are projected to save the Social Security and SSI programs money in the long run. Customer service problems could be difficult to address in the absence of additional staff or resources. Finally, SSA’s outdated computer systems pose security risks and are vulnerable to collapse, according to outside experts.
This report provides an overview of SSA’s workloads, resources, and service delivery, as well as issues for Congress. It does not cover H.R. 1 and S.Amdt. 98, which are intended to provide a stimulus to the economy. For more information on that legislation, please see CRS Report R40188, Comparison of Social Security Provisions in the Stimulus Packages Proposed by the House of Representatives and Senate. This report will not be updated.