Persistent underfunding, an aging population, and workforce attrition created a perfect storm that resulted in significant delays in processing applications for Social Security disability benefits.
“The pandemic, combined with high attrition, created backlogs. Initial disability claims pending have now reached over 1 million,” Kilolo Kijakazi, acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA), said at a forum hosted by the Urban Institute on April 11.
She spoke about the challenges of operating the agency of some 60,000 employees that oversees the retirement and disability benefits of more than 70 million Americans.
“For over a decade, SSA received insufficient funding from Congress to administer its programs. This resulted in hiring freezes,” Kijakazi said. “At the same time, the number of Social Security beneficiaries was rising.”
In 2022, the workforce reached its lowest point in 25 years while the number of beneficiaries served was at an all-time high, according to data provided by Kijakazi. The agency has struggled to keep pace with the demand, meaning that many people who have labored to complete the 20-page Social Security Disability Insurance application must wait five months or more for a decision.
To address the backlog, Kijakazi has implemented several strategies she hopes will produce an improvement this year. But increased funding is needed to fully resolve the problem, she said.
Kijakazi created a special team to attack the backlog, which has led to the use of analytics to identify bottlenecks in the determination process, a team of claims adjudicators to pitch in on the states that have the highest number of backlogged claims, attorneys from within SSA being assigned to assist with conducting disability hearings, and the creation of a team of retired SSA employees to provide extra help.
These measures alone will not solve the problem, Kijakazi insists. That will depend on hiring more full-time employees, which in turn depends on additional funding provided by Congress.
The agency operates on a budget of $1.4 trillion. Although that budget was increased by $785 million this year, the raise was only about half of what was requested, and most of that was used for fixed costs, Kijakazi said.
“The funds we received for FY 2023 will help us maintain our current level of service but are not sufficient to make the improvements we had hoped to be able to make,” she said, noting that while some customer service functions should improve this year, others may get worse.
“We will need President Bident’s full $15.5 billion budget request for FY 2024 if we are to improve service,” Kijakazi said. That increase would allow the agency to make the positions hired during the current year permanent as well as improve IT systems and automated services, she said.