Insight Gained From Trying to Contact Social Security

My husband Jesse’s death has been a learning experience for me in many ways. One thing I’ve learned is why so many Americans who don’t have principled objections to major federal programs hate “big government” — and how spending cuts can build support for more.

Checklists I’d been sent told me that I should notify the Social Security Administration of Jesse’s death so that it would stop deposits to his bank account. Foreseeing, as I now know I shouldn’t have, some impending fraud claim, I went to the SSA website, thinking I could notify the agency there. Wrong.

So I called the 800 number. Recorded messages telling me things I didn’t need to know, e.g., the new cost of living adjustment, the Medicare Part B premium. Then a lengthy Q&A with an interactive program. Then a message telling me my wait time would be 45 minutes, but that I could get a callback instead. Opted for that. No call.

So called again. Same routine. Had to hang up after close to 45 minutes to take other calls. Try again. Same results. Finally decided what I should do is get an appointment at the nearest SSA office. Can’t do that on the website either. And so …. Well, you know what.

I finally got to a live human being after about 50 minutes. She told me I could schedule a telephonic meeting. The first available appointment was nearly six weeks away. For  me, this is really no big deal. But what if I’d depended on Jesse for financial support and urgently needed the ongoing survivor benefits I’d have been entitled to?

Frustrations like those I experienced are directly traceable to inadequate funding that has put the squeeze on services for many years. SSA simply doesn’t have the budget for anything like the number of staff it needs.

This is also the case for the Internal Revenue Service, which may be able to answer only 43% of taxpayer calls this filing season — and for the lucky minority whose wait times pan out, only to answer the most basic questions.

No answers whatever for people who don’t file by April 15. No more personal help with tax returns for low-income, elderly and disabled filers either. Well, what do you expect when the agency’s budget, in real dollars, is about 17% less than in 2010.

“The way Congress has been handling the funding of the IRS, it’s as if it wants us to hate the agency,” Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary observes. Indeed.

SSA and IRS aren’t the only agencies short-staffed. Blogger Paul Waldman recently posted a pair of charts showing how the federal workforce has shrunk over time. The more telling shows that the number of federal employees per 100,000 residents has dropped by 43% since 1968.

Ramping up automation and other “efficiencies” can do only so much. Only people can, for example, staff the visitors centers in our national parks, protect the wildlife (and the visitors) and plow the snow off the roads so the parks are accessible.

Anyone who knows how angry residents get when streets aren’t swiftly plowed after a snowstorm can imagine how angry some 135,000 people were at our federal government when they learned they couldn’t get into Yellowstone National Park for two weeks after it was scheduled to open.

Chalk this up to budget cuts — including, but not limited to the across-the-board cuts that affected all federal agencies in 2013.

I could run out other examples, but I think the point is clear. The spending-slashers have created a feedback loop. We expect reasonably timely, responsive services, especially when critical needs are at stake.

We’re driven around the bend by faceless bureaucrats, like the administrative law judges who taken an average of 422 days to rule on appeals when claims for disability benefits are denied, as they often are. Others, also faceless who don’t even put veterans needing medical care on a waiting list.

Bodiless, mindless bureaucrats, like what Jesse and I used to call the metal person who put me through the drill before I could get into the queue of calls waiting  at SSA.

Whether such frustrations translate into self-defeating support for further cuts to specific agencies’ budgets isn’t altogether clear.

Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times, among others, perceives “a political motivation” in the case of SSA — specifically, that conservatives aim to make Social Security “less relevant” to everyday folks so they’ll be more willing to accept an alternative, e.g. private retirement savings accounts.

Maybe. What I’m more confident of is that unduly slow, insufficient and/or messed-up services help persuade Americans that the federal government is too damn big and ought to be retrenched.

That, of course, serves radically-right Congress members well, since they’d like nothing better than to pare off all but a few core functions, leaving the rest to state and local governments, private businesses, civil society organizations and individuals themselves.

Method in what seems the madness of forcing IRS staffing cuts that will cost the federal government at least $2 billion this year alone in taxes dodged or inadvertently not paid.

3 Responses to Insight Gained From Trying to Contact Social Security

  1. There’s nothing like actually being a “consumer” and struggling with the system that helps you identify the significant barriers to getting services.

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    I know you know this well, Diane.

  3. […] Fulminating over SSA services last year, I cited a Los Angeles Times columnist who suggested that Republicans want to get us so riled up that we’ll accept some private-sector alternative. The head of the union that represents many agency employees says that’s why House Republicans voted for the latest budget cut. […]

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