The Social Security Administration's Diminishing Footprint

The Social Security Administration’s footprint is shrinking. The agency, which handles Americans’ applications for retirement and disability benefits, has shut down 5 percent of its offices in the past five years, leaving it with 1,245, according to a new report by the Senate Special Committee on Aging. Social Security has also cut back hours, closing at noon on Wednesdays.

The closures, prompted by limited funding, coincide with two somewhat competing trends: Baby boomers are reaching retirement age, meaning demand for Social Security’s services is increasing. At the same time, more people are accessing Social Security benefits by phone or online. Senators held a hearing on Wednesday to determine if the agency’s handling of closures damages access for beneficiaries—especially those who may need more face-to-face assistance.

For example, when the SSA closed an office in Quincy, Fla., the only public transportation to the nearest office in Tallahassee was a once-a-day commuter shuttle, the Senate reports. The committee further criticized a lack of rigor and transparency in the agency decisions: “The data the agency has compiled to justify its closures are incomplete or insufficient, and ultimately SSA has no clear way to compare offices against each other and determine which offices are most needed by the American public.”

The agency is doing its best with limited resources, Deputy Commissioner Nancy Berryhill told the Senate panel. “It is my job to balance service across the nation. That is a difficult chore,” she says. Berryhill emphasized that the agency is trying to use technology—in particular, video chats—to maintain access. She says the agency has 423 sites that let beneficiaries connect to SSA staff by video in such places as public libraries or rural areas such as Indian reservations.

The SSA’s field offices serve about 182,000 people in person each day, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office last year. They also handle nearly half a million daily phone calls. The agency leased about 30 million square feet at the end of 2012, at a cost of about $700 million annually, according to the GAO report.

That document noted that the SSA was considering adapting its physical space to the changing ways beneficiaries get services, but it also said that “SSA has long considered face-to-face interaction to be the gold standard of customer service.” Maintaining that standard is a challenge in an era when, because of a four-year hiring freeze, the agency’s field staff has dropped 14 percent.

Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, acknowledged the role that Washington’s budget squabbles play in the SSA’s predicament, even as he chided Berryhill over the handling of the closures. “If the Congress does its job and we can get past this sequester, then you should have a little more relief instead of the constant cuts that you’ve had,” Nelson said.

The Social Security Administration’s funding from Congress is unconnected to the demand for its services. Even with the best processes in place to weigh the costs and benefits of closing an office, it would be forced to make tough choices that would disproportionately burden some people. And from Wednesday’s hearing, it seems as if there’s room to improve how SSA makes those decisions.

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