Administering Social Security: Challenges Yesterday and Today

Article excerpt

In 2010, the Social Security Administration (SSA) celebrates the 75th anniversary of the passage of the Social Security Act. In those 75 years, SSA has been responsible for programs providing unemployment insurance, child welfare, and supervision of credit unions, among other duties. This article focuses on the administration of the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program, although it also covers some of the other major programs SSA has been tasked with administering over the years--in particular, Medicare, Black Lung benefits, and Supplemental Security Income. The article depicts some of the challenges that have accompanied administering these programs and the steps that SSA has taken to meet those challenges. Whether implementing complex legislation in short timeframes or coping with natural disasters, SSA has found innovative ways to overcome problems and has evolved to meet society's changing needs.

Introduction

They said it couldn't be done. In 1935, the Social Security Board, predecessor of the Social Security Administration (SSA), started to plan the implementation of the Social Security Act. Board administrators contacted European experts who were experienced with such programs. The experts replied that it was impossible to maintain a system for tracking individuals' earnings histories of 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 was successfully launched 75 years ago this month--and 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.

SSA is an efficient agency with very low administrative costs of 0.9 percent of total expenditures (Board of Trustees 2009). Agency employees have a very well-defined sense of the agency's mission, and SSA constantly strives to improve its service to the public.

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. (1) 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 postentitlement actions themselves, freeing SSA employees for other tasks.

Nevertheless, in reviewing the SSA Annual Reports to Congress over the past 75 years, one is struck by the frequency with which the section on administering the programs starts out with a sentence such as "SSA has had a very challenging year." Reviewing some of the major challenges that SSA has faced over the years, and how SSA has met them, seems appropriate as the agency prepares to meet its current challenges.

Over the past 75 years, SSA's responsibilities have involved programs as wide-ranging as unemployment insurance, child welfare, and credit union supervision, among others. This article deals largely with administering the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) program. Over the years, SSA has been tasked with administering other major programs in addition to OASDI--in particular, Medicare, Black Lung benefits, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). This article also covers the challenges of administering those programs. …