Over the weekend I caught Michael Hiltzik falsely claiming that Republicans had taken a “meat cleaver” to the budget of the Social Security Administration. The offered proof was that (no doubt like most goverment agencies) they usually don’t get quite what they ask for. I looked at some budget documents and noted that there was an 11% increase in the SSA budget over four years (2009 to 2013) and that they typically request 8% more every year than they received in the previous year.
It’s almost as if Michael Hiltzik wasn’t being truthful with the readers of the Los Angeles Times.
Daleyrocks dug deeper and found a document that challenges some other key assumptions of Hiltzik’s column. That document, in turn, caused me to research other documents relating to the performance of the SSA, with results that (surprise, surprise!) undermine Hiltzik’s claim that the level of service has plummeted.
Hiltzik’s column, remember, was titled, Another way to harm Social Security: wreck its customer service.
Mark Miller of Reuters brings us up to date on this underhanded campaign, which involves closing field offices by the score, satellite offices by the hundreds and service staff by the thousands. “Visitors to field offices waited more than 30 percent longer in fiscal 2013 than in 2012,” Miller reports. “Busy signals on the SSA’s toll-free customer assistance line (800-772-1213) doubled in fiscal 2013 over the previous year.”
Let’s put that in perspective. In 2013 the agency reported (pdf): “Busy signals on our 800-number were the lowest ever.” The document found by daleyrocks contains this table:
So, despite the supposed “meat cleaver” slashing of the budget (again, an 11% increase over 4 years), the percentage of calls resulting in a busy signal has declined over time from 12% (FY 2006) to 5% (FY 2012). But then, last year (FY 2013), they supposedly doubled, right back to 10%.
What could explain this sudden change, then, from 2012 to 2013? If you look at my earlier post, you’ll see that the actual budgets for the SSA were $11.5 billion in 2012, SLASHED WITH A MEAT CLEAVER to $11.4 billion in 2013. Did this almost 1% cut in the budget mean that busy signals doubled? I tend to doubt it.
What did happen in 2013 was . . . the government shutdown. And during that period of time, the phones were apparently not being answered at anywhere near the same rate. CBS News reported in October 2013:
While Social Security checks will continue to go out after the government shutdown, some folks making calls to their Social Security office may find their calls unanswered.
Although this didn’t last long, when nobody’s calls get answered for weeks, that can skew totals greatly. Until I see data otherwise, I conclude that the government shutdown, and not a systematic “slashing” of budgets that remain mostly steady or increase.
[UPDATE: This theory is incorrect, because as a reader notes, the government shutdown took place at the beginning of fiscal year 2014, even though it was in calendar year 2013. So the alleged doubling of busy signals must have some other explanation -- although it seems very hard to believe it was due to a paltry 1% cut in the SSA budget.]
Back to Hiltzik:
What was especially fatuous was the agency’s assertion that the annual statements, which showed up in people’s mailboxes with such regularity you could almost set your watch (or at least your calendar) by them, could easily be replaced by an online service anyone could access by computer.
Of course, many people don’t have access to a computer as easily as they do to their mailbox, and fewer feel comfortable going online for private, personal information. Now Miller reports that only 10 million workers, a mere 6% of the total, have signed up to get their statements online. How predictable.
Yeah? And what percentage of the people who got this stuff in the mail actually opened it up? I bet that percentage is very small — and that is the relevant comparison point. In other words: true, Internet access to the statements doesn’t mean everyone will sign up — but mail access to the statements doesn’t mean everyone opens them up (or would much care if they stopped coming). Hiltzik’s 6% argument basically assumes everyone reads the statements, but only 6% can figure out how to get online.
Logic and numbers tell a different story.
First, logic: even if it is true that most people don’t go online to access their statements, there are plenty of reasons people might not care what their benefits are. For some, perhaps that is because they know they can’t collect Social Security. That describes me. I have paid into Social Security for the requisite number of quarters, but I won’t collect a dime because of rules relating to pensions. For others, they will technically be eligible but not care, perhaps because they are young and this is not their top priority, or because they figure the system will collapse and they will never see any money from the system. Others may already remember what their benefits were and not yet be interested in how it has all changed in the last year. Still others think they will get benefits, never knew what they were, and won’t start to worry about the specifics until they near retirement.
Hiltzik assumes 100% of recipients are critically interested in seeing this information on a regular basis. But logic says they aren’t. What’s more, the numbers say that when getting online is important to them, more and more people can figure out how tondo that.
Second, the numbers: want to know something that does matter to people? Filing their claims. And guess what? That is happening online more and more every year. According to the document located by daleyrocks (.pdf), the “Complete Performance Section” for Fiscal Year 2012, as of 2012 the number of claims filed online was steadily increasing year after year:
The document Overview of our Fiscal Year 2013 Goals and Results has the following table:
Online claim filing continues to increase every year. And these are people who are theoretically the least able to access computers of anyone: the elderly and the disabled.
The daleyrocks-located document alao claims that the SSA met goals in numerous different areas, undercutting the idea that services have been cut to the bone. Goals met include: eliminate the oldest pending hearing requests; reduce the percentage of Appeals Council cases pending 365 days or over; minimize average processing time for initial disability claims; complete the budgeted number of initial disability claims; meet target for Disability Determination Services cases production per workyear; complete the budgeted number of disability claims at the reconsideration level; achieve the target number of initial disability claims pending; achieve the target percentage of initial disability cases identified as Quick Disability Determinations or Compassionate Allowances; increase the percentage of claims filed online (discussed above; this is considered a priority goal); complete the budgeted number of retirement, survivors, and Medicare claims; achieve the target busy rate for National 800 Number calls (as discussed above); omplete the planned number of video hearings; etc. etc. etc. I got tired of cutting and pasting all the goals they met.
Of course, they fell short in some areas, too. How can you keep increasing your request by 8% a year if you don’t claim you’re underfunded somehow?
But, just as Hiltzik’s claims of drastic budget slashing don’t withstand scrutiny, his claims of a pervasive, year-after-year decline in services doesn’t hold up. A review of these documents shows the services keep getting faster, more automated, and more reliable every year — with the apparent exception of a year with a government shutdown.
So, hey, I know what let’s do: let’s cherry-pick some numbers from the government shutdown year, lie about meat cleaver slashing, and make it sound like the SSA is going to hell in a handbasket.
Par for the course from this guy.
UPDATE: In 1993, busy signals at the 800 number were sometimes between 50 and 90 percent (.pdf). Then the GOP took a meat cleaver!! to the SSA budget and the percentage skyrocketed to between 5% and 10%.