This week, The Arc testified before the Committee on Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Social Security, in the U.S. House of Representatives on the urgent need to strengthen Social Security—including their customer service—for people with disabilities.
Below is a summary of Lilly’s remarks before the committee. You can access her full testimony here.
Chairman Larson, Acting Ranking Member Hern, and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to testify about the importance of the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) customer service for people with disabilities. My name is Bethany Lilly and I am the Senior Director of Public Policy at The Arc of the United States.
As you noted, I am testifying on behalf of the Consortium for Constituents with Disabilities (CCD) Social Security Task Force. I will focus my remarks on three things: the importance of Social Security providing strong customer service to people with disabilities, the current backlog of cases, and the solutions needed to address these customer service challenges.
For millions of people with disabilities, including veterans, Social Security disability benefits provide crucial income support. In 2021, the average disability benefit was $1,143 per month, which is less than $14,000 a year. These benefits are extremely modest, but they help people with disabilities and their families pay the rent and buy groceries.
To access these benefits, people with disabilities must navigate the incredibly complex disability determination process. It shouldn’t take a law degree to navigate these labyrinthian rules, especially since these benefits are designed to help those with disabilities who often, by definition, will require assistance with paperwork. But this complexity requires high-quality service from SSA to ensure a well-trained staff can answer complex questions.
While disability benefits are SSA’s most complicated programs, SSA also helps people with retirement benefits, name changes, enumeration for new citizens and new babies, Medicare enrollment, and many other functions.
In March 2020, all of these functions abruptly shifted online, over the phone, or via mail as the hundreds of Field Offices across the country closed due to the pandemic. The agency managed this transition despite over a decade of underfunding that has left SSA at distinct disadvantages, especially with regard to staffing and outdated technology. As Tracey Gronniger from Justice in Aging discussed in more detail, there is a desperate need for in-person services, especially for low-income older adults and people with disabilities who face disparities in access to the internet and may have limited phone minutes.
We are glad that SSA began reopening their offices last month, in no small part because of the growing challenges that SSA faces. Estimates suggest that more than half a million people have not received the SSA disability benefits to which they are entitled over the past two years, even taking into account recent declining trends in applications. And while we are not sure how many people experiencing continued symptoms from a COVID-19 infection (those known as long-haulers or people with Long COVID), will meet the extremely strict Social Security disability standard, we do know that Long COVID can complicate other existing conditions, so more SSA cases should be expected.
Part of this decline is no doubt related to the current backlog of people who have applied and are awaiting an initial or reconsideration decision. There are now 1 million of these cases and on average, people are waiting 6 months for an initial decision and 6 months for a reconsideration appeal. This is nearly twice as long as in the past. As Congress did when we faced a similar backlog issue for hearings before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), this issue can be addressed with targeted funding for backlog reduction. SSA has shown that when it is given the right funding, it can get the job done.
And as I mentioned before, SSA has also been underfunded for over a decade. Since 2010, SSA’s operating budget has fallen 14 percent, with an associated drop in staffing of 13 percent. During the same time period, the number of Social Security beneficiaries has grown by 21 percent. It is a credit to the employees of SSA that the millions of people who turn to SSA in their times of need are able to be served at all, even if such service is often minimal and in many cases inadequate. This long-term funding deficit is a problem that Congress must act now to address!
In addition to addressing this funding crisis, we would urge action on the Chairman’s Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust Act which has a number of benefits and customer service improvements. In particular, we are glad that Acting Commissioner Kijakazi addressed the inflationary concerns raised by advocates and increased the representative’s fee cap last week, but it would be very helpful for Congress to index the cap to inflation as the Chairman’s bill does. And there are other desperately needed improvements detailed in my testimony.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I look forward to taking your questions.