With its offices closing and a lousy 800-line, here's how to get advice
You may been relieved to hear that the Social Security Trustees Report said there’ll be enough money to pay full retirement benefits for another 19 years — until 2033. But there’s a more imminent Social Security crisis: the Social Security Administration’s horrendous service.
If you’ll be applying for benefits anytime soon, you’ll likely encounter this problem first-hand should you want to go to a Social Security office or call the agency’s 800-number with a question.
And you may have noticed that, in 2011, Social Security stopped mailing statements telling you how much you could expect to receive in benefits. Instead, you were told to go to the Social Security Administration's website and sign up for something called my Social Security. The agency's rationale: a $30 million savings that year and $70 million a year thereafter. (It resumed the mailings for people 60 and older in February 2012.)
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Focus on the Customers?
In a recent report, Acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin said “our top priority is to focus on our customers — the American public” but went on to acknowledge that, in Fiscal Year 2013, the agency’s “overall service suffered” and “service delivery times have increased.”
A combination of budget cuts, the sequester and questionable decisions by the Social Security Administration have led to massive field-office closings, reduced hours at offices that are still open and painfully long hold times for callers.
Reuters columnist Mark Miller, who has done magnificent reporting on the Social Security service cuts, recently noted that the Social Security Administration received less than its budget request in 14 of the last 16 years.
Social Security's Terrible Timing
And Social Security’s slipping service couldn’t be more ill-timed.
It’s happening precisely as the 78 million boomers are hitting retirement age, making the need for customer service greater than ever. Nearly three-quarters of Social Security field offices see between 50 and 199 visitors a day; that number will only increase as more boomers hit their 60s.
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- Social Security has closed 64 field offices (and 533 temporary mobile offices) since 2010. That means the agency shuttered one in 20 field offices — the largest five-year decline its 79-year history. There are now 1,245 field offices, down from 1,340 in 2000.
- It has 11,000 fewer workers than three years ago (a 14 percent drop); there are now 25,240 full-time employees. About a quarter of field offices lost at least 20 percent of their workers, according to National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA).
- Since 2011, Social Security has reduced the time its field offices are open by the equivalent of one day a week. All its field offices close at noon on Wednesdays.
- People are waiting 30 percent longer in field offices than in 2012. The average wait time today: 31 ½ minutes, according to NCSSMA. That’s an all-time high. At many offices, the wait time exceeds an hour.
- Call Social Security’s 800-number and you’ll get a busy signal 14 percent of the time. That’s up markedly from 3 percent in Fiscal Year 2011.
- If you do manage to get through, the average wait is more than 17 minutes. That’s nearly twice as long as in 2012. A few years ago, the average wait time was 5 minutes.
Pressure to Improve Service
Lately, there’s been growing pressure on Social Security to change its ways.
The Alliance for Retired Americans (formerly the National Council of Senior Citizens) and the advocacy nonprofit Social Security Works have amassed more than 100,000 petition signatures to keep Social Security offices open.
And a Senate Special Committee on Aging staff investigation report in June blasted the agency for its service cuts. Its authors were especially troubled by a “lack of local involvement” in determining whether to close a Social Security office. The committee’s chairman, Senator Bill Nelson (D, Fla.), said “the closure process is neither fair nor transparent and needs to change.”
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A Few Improvements Ahead
There are a few rays of sunshine ahead for people seeking help from Social Security.
For one thing, the agency took so much heat about forcing people to go online for their benefits statements that, starting next month, many more Americans will find the information in their mailboxes again.
Beginning September 2014, all workers who turn 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60 in the upcoming year and who either don’t currently receive benefits or aren’t registered for my Social Security will get their benefits statements mailed.
“We’re glad they’re doing that,” says David Blank, a spokesman for the Alliance for Retired Americans.
Colvin says that in the year ahead she expects the agency to: replace some of the people it lost answering calls on the 800 line; offer more self-service features by phone and route more callers for agent service even on peak days. Social Security also eventually plans to let customers have email conversations with staffers and chat from their computers.
Weaning the Public Off In-Person Help
The agency is clearly on a mission to get more people to use its website and fewer to receive in-person service.
A draft of the Vision 2025 report it commissioned to fulfill its mission in 2025 says: Online self-service delivery would be “our primary service channel” and that Social Security would “provide direct service options (e.g., in-person, phone, online chat, video conference) in very limited circumstances.”
Chances are, over time, as more web-comfortable boomers and younger people hit their 60s, they’ll gravitate to the Social Security site. But as of now, only 4.5 percent of adults have created a my Social Security account and just 9 percent of those 62 or older have. One reason: A sizable 41 percent of adults 65 or older don’t use the Internet at all and 53 percent of them don’t have access to broadband at home, according to the Pew Research Center.
"There's a real digital divide for vulnerable seniors," says Ramsey Alwin, Vice President, Economic Security at the National Council on Aging. "There will be some challenges as we move to more online platforms and limited face-to-face opportunities."
Adds Blank: “Social Security is telling people to go online, but it takes a fair amount of expertise to use its site. A lot of seniors are not web savvy; even the younger ones have trouble applying for benefits online.”
How to Get Claiming Advice Now
What should do you now if you want help in determining when to claim Social Security benefits and finding out how much you’d receive?
You could begin by signing up for Social Security’s my Social Security for a projection of your benefits at various ages. But I wouldn’t make a claiming decision based on them. Forbes’ John Wasik calls the projections “lowball estimates.”
If you decide to take Social Security at the wrong time or don’t understand the rules, you could wind up depriving yourself of thousands of dollars in lost benefits.
After taking a spin with my Social Security, I’d recommend running the numbers and some hypothetical claiming scenarios with a free online Social Security benefits calculator such as the one from AARP, T. Rowe Price (Social Security Benefits Evaluator), Financial Engines (Social Security Planner) or the top-rated calculator in a recent Wall Street Journal test: SSAnalyze!
The calculator called Maximize My Social Security ($40), from Boston University economics professor and PBS NewsHour contributor Larry Kotlikoff is also an excellent one (it was recently hailed by retirement writer Philip Moeller on Time.com and by The Wall Street Journal).
The Social Security Solutions site, cited by The Wall Street Journal for its ease of use, provides a personalized report for $20 and gives you a session with an expert for $125.
For one-on-one advice, I’d recommend visiting a Social Security office — if there’s still one near you and if you have the endurance.
“Bring a book,” advises Blank.
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