As millions of Baby Boomers start to retire, the Social Security Administration is being flooded with demands for help with benefits. But in a feat of bad timing, the agency has closed 64 field offices (1 out of 20), reduced hours at all the others, and now has 11,000 fewer employees today since 2010, according to a recent bipartisan Senate report.
The reason for these cutbacks? Pressure from Washington budget-cutters, who are requiring the agency to do more with less. Social Security's “solution” is to reduce face-to-face interactions and beef up less-costly options: online tools, call centers and, in some cases, video connections.
For its troubles, SSA got hammered last week by the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, which issued the report. More accurately, the agency got hammered by the panel’s ranking members, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson and Maine Republican Susan Collins. They were the only Senators present for just about the entire session, and they made good use of their time.
Nancy Berryhill, SSA’s deputy commissioner for operations, got the dubious honor of playing punching bag for Sens. Nelson and Collins. At one point, close to frustration if not tears, she said the agency has been decimated. “With these tight budget times, I’m trying to survive. . . . It’s been devastating to us. . . . And we are losing our most experienced employees.”
The loss of veteran workers will not be easily made up by online tools. The agency logged more than 156 million public interactions last year, including 45 million office visits, 46 million field-office calls and 56 million call-center interactions. Meanwhile, the total of all its Internet interactions—for benefit applications, address changes, disability reports and other service requests—was fewer than 9 million. Expecting the Internet to somehow emerge as the preferred and dominant source of Social Security assistance overnight is simply virtual unreality.
So, we are facing a world where there are fewer and fewer workers available to help more and more aging Americans make very complicated Social Security decisions. And, as Ms. Berryhill said, the remaining agency employees are not as skilled as those that have left. Given this reality, here are five steps you can take to help you make the right decisions about your Social Security benefits.
Sign up for My Social Security. You’re reading this story online so, clearly, asking you to use the Internet should not be a stretch. Create a personalized account with the SSA to see your official earnings history and the agency’s projection of your benefits at various claiming ages.
Use benefit calculators. Compare the financial impact of claiming at different ages—and be sure to consider your spouse's benefits too. Financial Engines is the latest financial advice firm to offer a Social Security benefits calculator. The AARP calculator does a good job of explaining the virtues of delaying benefits. My favorite calculator by far is Maximize My Social Security. (Full disclosure: MMSS was created by Boston University economics professor Larry Kotlikoff, who also happens to be co-authoring a book about Social Security with me and PBS business and economics correspondent Paul Solman.)
Personalize the numbers. Calculators are fine when it comes to plain-vanilla claiming situations. But most of us require more complex assessments to determine the best Social Security options. What’s your longevity outlook? Are you divorced? Has your present or former spouse died? Do you have young kids? Are you financially supporting your own parents? Did you or your spouse work in a job on which Social Security taxes were not paid? All of these situations may affect your Social Security benefits. Calculators rarely provide such nuanced advice.
Compare answers. As a background check, enter your precise Social Security question or claiming situation into your favorite search engine, and you'll see a wealth of solid (and often not-so-solid) advice. You can use this information, along with your other research, as preparation for the next, and last, step.
Push for top-level Social Security advice. Armed with your research, confirm your answers with SSA. You will find plenty of basic information on the SSA website. Next, call the 800 line with any specific questions. Then follow up with a visit to your local SSA office and meet with a claims representative. Yes, you may have a long wait, but it’s worth the effort. Finally, confirm your understanding of your benefit options with an SSA technical expert—these pros are the agency’s most experienced benefits staffers. To connect with one, you may need to be persistent. But that way, you'll get the best help SSA still has to offer.
Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging and health. He is an award-winning business journalist and a research fellow at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.