They said it couldn’t be done. In 1935, the Social Security Board. The predecessor of the Social Security Administration (SSA), started to plan the implementation of the Social Security Act. Board administrators contacted European experts who are experienced with such programs. The experts replied. That it was impossible to maintain a system for tracking individuals’ earnings histories.
The scope proposed for the United States (McKinley and Frase 1970, 20–21; SSA 1997a; SSA 1964a). Despite these pessimistic assessments. The Board persevered, and the Social Security program successfully launched 75 years ago this month—and a while. The agency may have stumbled a few times during its 75-year history. It is still on its feet and getting the benefit payments out via the Treasury Department every month. In fact, SSA has never missed a month of sending the payments out on time.
Today, SSA faces many challenges. Nearly 80 million baby boomers will file for retirement benefits over the next 20 years. An average of 10,000 per day (SSA 2008e). The agency was already struggling with a backlog of disability claim hearings when the 2008 recession hit. The recession compounded the agency’s problems because the number of individuals filing for retirement and disability benefits increased.
In addition, some states furloughed the SSA-funded state employees who make disability determinations for Social Security claimants. Keeping abreast of the latest technology on a restricted budget has also been a problem. The agency is exploring solutions, such as deploying Internet-based applications that enable claimants and third-party helpers to file applications for benefits and take certain post-entitlement actions themselves, freeing SSA employees from other tasks.
What Is Social Insurance?
There is no uniformly agreed-on definition of social insurance, but two definitions—one narrower and one broader—are often used. Under the narrower definition, social insurance consists of government programs in which workers (and/or their employers) pay dedicated taxes to the programs during the years that the workers are employed.
The workers then qualify for benefits from the programs when they reach retirement age, are determined to have a disability, are laid off, or experience another qualifying event. The main social insurance programs under this definition are the Social Security programs, Medicare, and UI.
The broader definition of social insurance includes both the programs supported by dedicated taxes and other programs (including tax credits) that provide income support; help people secure or afford necessities such as food, housing, and healthcare coverage; or provide services or benefits to improve economic opportunities such as education and job training, as well as child care.
The broader definition similarly includes both what is often referred to as universal programs and what is often referred to as targeted programs, with the difference being whether a program is open to otherwise-eligible families or individuals regardless of their income level or whether the program has an income restriction, usually an upper-income limit. (No programs are entirely universal in the sense that people of all ages, incomes, immigration statuses, and the like are eligible.)
New challenges will always arise to replace old ones. Beginning in 2008, the recession caused SSA workloads to spike once again. Even with 800-number and Internet options for public contact, field offices averaged 866,000 visitors per week in 2009.
In FY 2009, SSA processed over 175,000 more initial disability claims than anticipated, while some states began to furlough employees in the state-administered DDSs—even though SSA pays the employees’ salaries (Astrue 2009). SSA’s productivity increased nearly 30 percent from 2005 to 2009 (SSA 2009d, 79), yet employees are struggling to keep up with the work.
In 2008, 50 percent of callers to SSA field offices received a busy signal, and 8 percent of those visiting a field office without an appointment—about 3 million visitors—had to wait more than an hour to be seen by staff. Although field offices continue to process initial claims timely, they have been forced to defer processing millions of post-entitlement events such as adjusting payments and correcting earnings postings. This is not only unacceptable service, it is also demoralizing to SSA’s employees, who care deeply about the level of service they provide (McMahon 2008).
Some help has arrived. In FY 2009, Congress provided SSA with Recovery Act funds to assist with the rising workloads and hearings backlog. SSA’s administrative budget also increased. In FY 2009, SSA hired approximately 8,600 new employees. It’s the biggest hiring effort since the SSI program launched 35 years earlier. SSA budgeted for 2,600 more DDS employees, as well. Funds were also used to purchase additional computers, for video conferencing equipment for hearings, and to contract with additional medical providers and networks (Astrue 2009).