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Inefficiencies contribute to SSA's problems

For many families and individuals, Social Security benefits are their primary source of income. Roughly 20 percent of the population — 64 million people — receives Social Security payments. Most of them are receiving retirement benefits, but about 14 million people receive payments for disability, defined as being "unable to engage in substantial gainful activity" because of health issues.

The strength of the Social Security system is integral to these families' survival, yet the administration is riddled with problems — the best known being that it spends more money that it takes in. Without congressional intervention, the Social Security Administration will deplete the disability trust fund by the end of next year and the retirement benefit fund by 2035, according to an SSA report released this summer.

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A separate report released in June by the Government Accountability Office also highlighted a lesser known, yet extremely worrisome problem of disability insurance overpayments. SSA made at least $11 billion in disability insurance overpayments between fiscal years 2005 and 2014, according to the GAO. Its report focused on disabled individuals earning income well above the monthly allowance while still receiving disability benefits, but it largely ignored SSA's missteps contributing to the overpayments. Having worked as a Social Insurance Specialist in the SSA's Office of Disability Operations, I witnessed significant inefficiencies within Social Security's infrastructure that have placed this once-guaranteed safety net in jeopardy of failure.

While it is true that some individuals purposely engage in manipulation and fraud, most recipients and their employers report income information in a timely and thorough manner. In my experience, Social Security frequently fails to make the necessary adjustments in time to withhold payments. The extreme backlog and lethargic pace of information transfer between the 1,300 field offices and eight processing centers across the country mean that benefit readjustment sometimes occurs years after the income information was provided. This leads to overpayment recipients receiving bills from the federal government demanding the return of money they should not have received, with the blame inappropriately placed on the recipients for the error.

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In one case, I had to issue a $50,000 overpayment notice to a claimant from Tennessee despite his having followed all the rules about submitting workers' compensation settlement information. The abrupt and substantial debt placed on him was a terrible burden, yet I had no choice but to do my job. It was disheartening to think that his life — already difficult due to physical disability and economic limitations — was further damaged because of SSA's incompetence. As one may suspect, many of these overpayments are not repaid. Either the recipient goes into hiding and cannot be found, or their inability to pay results in Social Security writing off the debt. Money that would otherwise go to applicants in need of financial assistance is never recovered.

The policies of Social Security are too convoluted for even the most seasoned employee to adequately grasp. One of Social Security's more archaic rules is the limit on earned income for disability recipients. The average monthly disability benefit for a disabled worker as of July is $1,165. Non-blind recipients who are able to find employment are limited to earning $1,090 per month in order to still receive benefits. (https://www.socialsecurity.gov/oact/cola/sga.html) Combined, that's an annual income of $27,000. Many Americans would find it difficult to have a quality life for themselves under such stringent financial restrictions, let alone their children or other dependents. Sadly, many must choose between employment or disability payments because even a low-end job could cost an individual their Social Security benefits. The U.S. Congress' refusal to update Social Security policies has led to the forced impoverishment of millions of Americans and may ultimately cause the system's undoing.

I am 28 years old, and I do not expect Social Security as currently constituted to exist when I retire. Neither do researchers at Harvard and Dartmouth, who predict the exhaustion of trust funds much sooner than the agency's most recent projection of 2035. Either way, the once-guaranteed safety net of the federal government is all but a pipe dream for me and my generation. Therefore, I have taken appropriate steps to assure my family's future with multiple savings and investment accounts. I am certain that many members of Congress have done the same. While I know this because I worked at SSA, I could easily have been among the millions of Americans who are both unaware of and ill-prepared for the potential economic collapse that would accompany the depletion of Social Security's trust funds.

Please urge your federal representatives to research and implement solutions to Social Security's inefficiencies. Social Security is a wonderful program, but like everything it needs modernization and reform. It is essential that we demand legislators to act to assure our personal and America's economic security.

David Fakunle is a doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; his email is dfakunl1@jhu.edu.

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