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Social security closures show 'callous disregard'

When American workers contribute to Social Security with every paycheck, they aren’t just earning future benefits. They’re also paying for high quality customer service at Social Security field offices around the country.

For decades, that’s exactly what Social Security beneficiaries received. But in recent years, congressional Republicans have gotten in the way, starving the Social Security Administration (SSA) of the funding it needs to properly administer the program. Among its many harms, the underfunding and other efforts to undermine service have resulted in office closures around the country, including right here in Baltimore.

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North Baltimore’s Social Security office is scheduled to close Friday, and there apparently will be no replacement. The agency claims that they are not motivated by funding or the directive of the Office of Management and Budget to “reduce” the federal “footprint,” but no other explanation makes sense.

The Social Security Administration office at the Rotunda in North Baltimore is scheduled to close next month, an addition to a recent string of field office closures decried by activists and lawmakers.

The closing will force North Baltimore Social Security beneficiaries, many of whom have limited mobility and rely on public transportation, to travel miles away to offices in downtown Baltimore or Towson. When they get there, wait times are likely to be very long since there are now fewer offices to cover a large and growing population of beneficiaries.

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The Baltimore closing is not an isolated event. Nationwide, 64 Social Security field offices and over 500 mobile field offices have been closed since 2011. Average wait times at offices have climbed to nearly an hour, and nearly half of those who call the 1-800 number abandon their calls due to excessive time on hold or busy signals. The wait time for a hearing to determine eligibility for Social Security disability benefits is an average of 19 months. Thousands have died, suffered and gone bankrupt while on that waiting list.

The worst part is that all of this is completely unnecessary. Social Security has always been run extremely efficiently, spending less than a penny of every dollar of the American people’s Social Security contributions on administrative costs. And according to the most recent trustees report, Social Security currently has an accumulated surplus of $2.9 trillion. Yet, even though these administrative costs, like Social Security benefits themselves, are self-financed and therefore do not add a penny to the federal deficit, Congress still has the power to limit how much SSA can spend on administration.

Demonstrators object to the planned closure of the Social Security office in Arlington, Va., on Thursday. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Patricia Sullivan
Demonstrators object to the planned closure of the Social Security office in Arlington, Va., on Thursday. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Patricia Sullivan (Patricia Sullivan / For The Washington Post)

When Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011, they started using that power to strangle SSA. In the last eight years, Congress has forced SSA to cut its already modest operating budget by nearly 9 percent (adjusting for inflation). During the same period, the number of Social Security beneficiaries has increased by 15 percent as the baby boom generation entered retirement. The closure of Social Security field offices around the country, including in North Baltimore, makes the lives of all of us more difficult.

Why would Republican politicians do such a thing? Ideology. As one of the most successful government programs in history, Social Security has always disproved the GOP’s anti-government talking points by its very existence. For decades, they have tried to cut benefits and privatize the program. But they have never been successful because Social Security is too popular — it’s called the “third rail” for a reason. So instead, they decided to make it more difficult for people to access their earned benefits by undermining Social Security’s customer service.

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Earlier this year, due to pressure from grassroots activists around the country and tireless work from Social Security champions in Congress, Social Security’s administrative budget finally got a modest increase. But the bulk of that increase was earmarked for much needed information technology updates and reducing the disability hearings backlog. That left only a small amount for other priorities, including frontline service. And this year, Republicans are pushing to once again cut the SSA budget.

Last month, House Ways & Means Chair Brady said he is working closely with President Trump to make December’s tax cuts for individuals permanent before November’s election.

The closure of North Baltimore’s Social Security office, as well as the recent closures of offices in other locations including Milwaukee, Wis., and Arlington, Va., exemplifies the callous disregard Republican elites have for the rest of us. With 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day, we should be opening new offices, not closing them. We must demand that Republicans in Congress unshackle SSA and let it spend just a few tenths of a percent more of the Social Security surplus on opening new offices and fully staffing the ones we already have. If they refuse to do that, we should elect new leaders who will.

Nancy Altman is the president of Social Security Works (Twitter: @SSWorks) and chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition. She is co-author, with Eric R. Kingson, of “Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn't Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All.”

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