Social Security Office Closings Under Scrutiny

From Quincy, Florida, to Ketchikan, Alaska, field offices of the Social Security Administration (SSA) are being shuttered. Since 2010, 64 field offices have closed around the country, the largest number in the agency’s 79-year history. In addition, 533 temporary mobile offices have been shut down, and, in 2013, office hours were reduced in remaining locations. The closures and service reductions coincide with escalating demands from the aging baby boom generation, alarming the Senate Special Committee on Aging enough to commission a bipartisan investigation of the closures. The committee held a hearing on June 18 to discuss the findings.

In his opening remarks, Committee Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL) emphasized that senior Americans rely heavily on Social Security benefits—about ¼ of married couples and ½ of single adults receive 90% or more of their retirement income from the program. In the past decade, the number of Social Security retirement beneficiaries has increased 20%, and the number of disability recipients has grown 38%. Created as part of the New Deal in 1935, the first SSA office opened in Austin, Texas, in 1936 and has grown into the world’s largest social insurance program.

SSA facilities now include headquarters in Woodlawn, Maryland, 10 regional offices, 8 processing centers, 37 teleservice centers and about 1,245 field offices. Although almost half of benefit applications were filed online last year, SSA logged 46 million field-office calls and 56 million call-center interactions, reflecting the continuing significance of person-to-person contacts to resolve problems and fulfill beneficiary requests.

Critics of the closures, including Chairman Nelson and the committee’s ranking member, Senator Susan Collins (ME-R), contend that cutbacks threaten to undermine service in rural areas and have been made without a systematic process that assesses local considerations. For example, witness Brenda Holt (a county commissioner in Gadsden County, Florida), outlined hardships resulting from closing a field office in low-income Quincy, Florida, where residents often lack Internet access, computers or public transportation. Beneficiaries’ vision and hearing problems can further reduce the efficacy of in-person alternatives, such as library-based video interfaces. Senator Nelson acknowledged the risks to vulnerable populations of failing to investigate impacted communities, saying, “In sum, it’s a process that lacks rigor, transparence and frankly sufficient information to make a real decision.”

It fell to Nancy Berryhill, SSA’s Deputy Commissioner for Operations, to defend agency closure practices. Berryhill reiterated the scale of SSA responsibilities, painting a picture of tough times at field offices where overburdened employees struggle daily to meet complex public needs. Budget constraints, resulting in the loss of 11,000 agency employees in recent years, have exacerbated the situation, and sometimes require hard choices such as field office consolidation. According to Berryhill, however, the agency’s decision-making process is careful, evidence-based and collaborative, engaging local stakeholders and respecting constituent concerns. Further, the agency is looking ahead as technology and demographics change customer expectations. While remaining committed to the field office structure, says Berryhill, online, phone and video deliver routine service efficiently while freeing employees to assist with more complicated issues. In 2013, the agency added a mobile app to its interface options. “Throughout our history,” said Berryhill, “Social Security services have been dynamic, shifting to meet the changing needs and expectations of the American people. Standing still is not an option.”

Senator Collins concluded her statement with an additional caution. A draft strategic plan, “Vision 2025,” proposes that the agency shift from person-to-person to online service as the primary approach within 11 years. Senator Collins called the plan “completely unrealistic,” saying it ignores the preferences and capabilities of elderly, disabled and other SSN applicants and recipients. Not scheduled for public release for several months, the plan’s implications for further SSA closings throughout the country will warrant scrutiny this fall.