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Michael Hiltzik

Social Security's continuing assault on its own customer service

How Social Security undermines its own customer service standards

It would be incorrect to call the dramatic deterioration in customer service and outreach at the Social Security Administration a dirty little secret.

It's no secret to the increasing number of people who get a busy signal when they call the agency's 800-number help line. Or those who have to find a way to traverse the 85 miles of rural roads they may have to navigate to reach their closest Social Security field office, or wait more than two hours to be served once they get there. Or the more than 40% of beneficiaries who have to wait three weeks or more for an appointment with a benefits officer.

It's no secret to the millions of Americans who became accustomed to receiving annual Social Security statements in the mail once a year, and now are wondering why those don't come anymore. 

And it's no secret to the Social Security Administration itself, which bravely tries to portray all these shortcomings as part of its master plan for the future, a document called, laughably, "Vision 2025." 

The downside of drastic cutbacks in the agency's staffing levels, number of field offices and general commitment to service is detailed in a report issued by the Senate Committee on Aging in conjunction with a hearing on the subject Wednesday.

The report documented the scale of the cutbacks, which we've previously written about here, here and here. The wave of baby-boomer retirements has driven demand for services "as high as they have ever been," as the agency's inspector general observed last year. Nevertheless, the agency has closed offices left and right, reducing the number of full-service field offices to 1,245 from the 1,340 it staffed in the year 2000 and closing 533 of its 734 limited-service "contact stations" since 2010 alone.

Meanwhile, hours have been cut at all remaining field offices. It shouldn't be a surprise that the number of people facing two-hour-plus wait times has tripled over the last 18 months.

The agency says that's all right, because more people can access crucial services by phone or online.

But busy signals and hold times have increased three- to four-fold. And for many older people, the phone is no substitute for face-to-face contact, especially when the abstruse complexity of a Social Security rule may be the subject.

"Hearing loss is chronic in our aging population," Tammy DeLong, an official of an agency on aging from Presque Isle, Maine, told the panel. "Telephonic services are a challenge especially to those with late-life hearing loss.... Social Security prefers to do business by telephone and this is not an option for those with impaired hearing. They need to be able to walk into an office, look at the person they are speaking with and feel comfortable that communication is really happening."

The Internet? Only people who use computers in their daily work or have assistants to do their navigating for them -- people like government bureaucrats -- could imagine the Internet is a solution for many in the Social Security client base. That community includes millions of people who view the computer as an alien instrument, or whose low fixed incomes rule out computer ownership, or who live in remote rural communities without broadband service.

The main problem here, of course, is congressional budget-cutting, which has consistently taken bites out of the agency's appropriations even as the caseload soars (see accompanying chart). Between fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2014, the agency's field office staff fell from 29,481 to 25,420.

None of this is surprising when the congressional purse strings remain in the grip of a House whose Republican majority wants to think Social Security is a burden and an irrelevance, and isn't averse to encouraging the rest of the country to think that way.

But ignorance of the challenge facing the Social Security Administration crosses partisan lines -- witness the chuckleheaded idea offered by Democratic leaders Andrew Young and Bill Clinton not long ago to have the agency issue photo IDs to voters, as an antidote to voter suppression efforts by Republican state legislatures.

As we observed then, this terrible idea would place an added burden on an agency struggling to meet the obligations it already has.  

The deterioration of customer service has been allowed to happen because people in power don't have to suffer the consequences. Members of Congress won't have to worry about making ends meet on a Social Security check in retirement, or what to do if a glitch stops that check from coming. The Senate committee's report is a good start at filling the gap -- if it gets read. 

Keep up to date with The Economy Hub by following @hiltzikm.

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