by Greg Anrig
One sharp contrast between the budgets proposed by President Obama and the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives is the allocation for administering the Social Security program. Zeroing in on that seemingly mundane line item is instructive because it illustrates how stark the differences are between the conservative and progressive visions for the federal government’s role.
President Obama’s budget calls for a $1 billion increase for the Social Security Administration, to $12.5 billion in fiscal 2011. The House-passed H.R. 1 actually reduces the SSA spending level -- to $11.3 billion in 2011. What difference does substantially increasing versus cutting spending on administering Social Security mean to average citizens?
One of the most-labor intensive tasks of the SSA is determining whether individuals applying for the program’s disability benefits are actually eligible. The agency’s personnel closely review medical and employment records to determine if each applicant’s condition is severe and would interfere with work-related activities, usually holding hearings to make those assessments. During periods of high unemployment, such as the one that continues to persist, applications for disability benefits invariably surge. In 2010, just under 3 million disability applications were submitted, compared to 2.2 million in 2007. Even though the agency has become more efficient in recent years as its funding has increased – average wait times for a hearing declined from an all-time high of nearly 18 months in 2008 to one year -- the backlog of pending claims has risen to 774,000 due to the increased applications.
But cutting funding for the SSA now would inevitably escalate those backlogs and wait times. In Congressional testimony, Marty Ford, the Co-Chair of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Task Force on Social Security, described particular examples of how prolonged waits for decisions on disability claims can devastate families: