But Social Security benefits themselves are not subject to the ongoing budget wars fought in Congress — by law, benefits have been off-budget since 1990.
Social Security has responded to its customer service challenges by ramping up automation and use of the internet. It has sharply reduced the number of annual benefit statements sent by mail, encouraging workers to sign up for online accounts. The agency also has begun replacing crash-prone, 30-year-old computer systems.
Its long-term strategy states that by 2025, most transactions should be online, and in-person services be limited “to meet the needs of vulnerable populations.”
The technology initiatives have already helped ease backlogs; 39.5 million people have created online accounts. In fiscal 2018, 55 percent of retirement and disability claims were filed online, up from negligible numbers a decade ago.
But a report last year by the Government Accountability Office found that the spread of online services has been limited by factors like uneven computer literacy and non-English speaking or homeless populations.
And technology-driven customer service requires human intervention. For example, employees sometimes need to help claimants correct errors or make decisions. “We see a lot of problems with people filing on the internet for retirement benefits,” says Jill Hornick, a union representative at the American Federation of Government Employees who works at a field office in Chicago Heights, Ill.
Digital divide issues also come into play. “Older low-income people usually don’t have the ability to interact with the agency online,” says Daniela de la Piedra, a lawyer with AARP/Legal Counsel for the Elderly in Washington, who represents low-income beneficiaries. “This is the population that goes into the local Social Security office and does business face to face.”
Slow processing of paperwork can keep beneficiaries in limbo for months, or even years, waiting for mistakes to be corrected. The number of pending actions at payment centers — the agency’s back-office operation — has soared 80 percent since 2010; the backlog stood at 3.19 million items pending action in fiscal 2018, according to the council of associations.
People deserve better, Ms. Holt of Gadsden County said. “This isn’t a handout. People have worked hard to earn their Social Security benefits. If you pay taxes, you expect to get services.”