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OFF-KILTER with Rebecca Vallas

May 27, 2022

There’s a lot of talk about budgets in Washington—but budget debates are rarely humanized in ways that people can understand in real life terms. And that’s a problem. Because a wide array of critical agencies across the federal government have been getting systematically underfunded over the years, resulting in very real problems for American families. 

A prime example is the Social Security Administration (SSA)—which oversees retirement, disability, and survivors insurance as well as Supplemental Security Income. Since 2010, SSA’s operating budget has been cut by at least 16 percent, adjusting for inflation. Its staffing is down 13 percent, and all while the number of beneficiaries has gone up 21 percent. Why? Because Democrats have failed to get Republicans to join them in increasing SSA’s administrative budget, which is so lean already it’s just 1 percent of the benefits the agency pays out. 

What this kind of systematic disinvestment in a key federal agency means in human terms was the subject of a recent congressional hearing held in response to an outcry from constituents across the United States about customer service challenges in accessing Social Security. 

Hour-plus long waits, dropped calls, and an often simply nonfunctional 1-800 phone line; unconscionable delays for disability determinations that leave thousands dying every year waiting for desperately needed benefits; and a huge problem with overpayments or underpayments that occur through no fault of the beneficiaries because the agency just doesn’t have the resources and staffing to process earnings reports on time are just a few examples of how this impacts individuals and families. 

So for this week’s Off-Kilter, Rebecca sat down with two of the other witnesses from that hearing—Bethany Lilly of The Arc and Tracey Gronniger of Justice in Aging—as well as two of the other top experts on the issue: Kathleen Romig of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Kristen Dama of Community Legal Services, for a look at the human toll of defunding SSA.

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