Petition protests Social Security office closures

A group of people representing union and retiree organizations on October 2 presented a petition with one-half million signatures to the Social Security Administration in Washington DC urging it to stop closing local offices and to restore the face-to-face services on which people applying for benefits depend.

Representatives of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the Alliance for Retired Americans, and Social Security Works joined together to rally and present the petitions.

Support rallies were held in New York City, Oakland, and Columbus, Ohio.

Because of budget cuts, the Social Security Administration during the last three years has closed 80 local offices and 500 contact stations.

“Budget cuts have degraded the Social Security Administration’s ability to service millions of baby boomers who are becoming eligible for retirement,” said AFGE in a media statement about the event.

The union also warned that a strategic plan being proposed by the Social Security Administration “will drastically reduce community field offices and transition (services) to a web-centric customer service mode.”

The strategic plan, known as Vision 2025, has not been released yet, but in July, the agency released a report that made recommendations that will likely be included in the new strategic plan.

The report recommends reducing face-to-face contact between local Social Security workers and people seeking benefits by making the agency’s “virtual channels (e.g., online, phone, video conferencing) . . .  the primary means of means of service delivery.”

“Many people who rely on Social Security are the least likely to have knowledge, ability, and resources to use the Internet services,” said Witold Skwierczynski, president of AFGE Council 220, at the Washington DC gathering. . . “People need experts to guide them.”

“It is outrageous that (the Social Security Administration) is closing offices when baby boomers are retiring in massive numbers and need the aid of experienced . . . staff to handle the rapidly rising number of new Social Security applications.”

In an opinion piece appearing in Government Executive, David Cox, president of AFGE, said that instead of closing offices and allowing staff to dwindle through attrition, the Social Security Administration needs to enhance face-to-face services even if it means fighting for more resources.

“We should not be afraid to fight for the resources needed to build a (comprehensive service delivery system),” he writes.

But fighting for adequate funding is not presented as an option in the Vision 2025 report.

The report, entitled Anticipating the Future: Developing a Vision and Strategic Plan for the Social Security Administration for 2025-2030, was written by a panel convened by the National Academy of Public Administration.

The panel was chaired by Jonathan Bruel, the former executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, a research and policy group funded by IBM whose purpose is to connect government agencies with services provided by businesses.

Also serving on the six-member panel was Alan Balutis, senior director of the Cisco Internet Business Group, and Jim Huse, senior advisor at HJ Steininger, a consulting firm that helps governments “implement challenging programs.”

The report acknowledges that the Social Security Administration “has excelled in providing personal service to its customers” but goes on to say that the agency’s emphasis on face-to-face services “seems to hamper its ability to identify and develop new opportunities to improve services (e.g., online delivery, self-service, and automation).”

According to the report, the Social Security Administration currently uses some technology to deliver some services, but acknowledges that there have been problems with it that require human intervention.

Of those applications that have been submitted online, 95 percent had information missing that required a call back by a Social Security worker.

The current web site has had other problems as well. For example, criminals set up fraudulent accounts through the MySocialSecurity web portal and benefits were paid to these phony accounts.

Despite these problems, the report recommends increasing the agency’s reliance on automation and notes “as more work becomes automated, it become less necessary to maintain the current (workforce) structure.”

But Cox argues that expanding a flawed automated system and over relying on automated tools will hurt the agency’s customers.

Doubling down on a complex, error-prone MySSA website will do nothing to make up for the rapidly growing service gap,” writes Cox. “According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, more than 40 percent of Americans over the age of 65 do not even use the Internet. Nearly 60 percent lack a broadband connection. But the problems don’t end there. Even for those who do use the Internet, those who file for benefits online often mistakenly leave out important information that could result in a loss of benefits.”

One important service that automated systems can’t do well is informing people about benefits to which they are entitled but not aware of.

“Social Security representatives give people different options, something they haven’t considered,”  said Dianne Flemming, a Social Security recipient at the Washington DC rally. “(People) don’t know what type of benefits they are eligible for.”

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Sen. Sanders: Fix the Debt plan is “class warfare.”

Corporate leaders this week lobbied Congress to lower the nation’s debt by reducing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits. One of those corporate executives was Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, who told CBS that US workers need to lower their expectations about retirement security and accept cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.

US Senator Bernie Sanders, who opposes any cuts to the nation’s safety net programs, said that Blankfein’s call for cuts is another example of class warfare waged by corporate America and Wall Street against working America.

“Think about the arrogance of these guys on Wall Street who were bailed out by the middle class of this country when their greed and recklessness nearly destroyed the financial system,” said Sanders. “And now they come to Capitol Hill to lecture Congress and the American people about the need to cut programs for working people. This is what class warfare is all about.”

Blankfein and about 80 other corporate executives have signed on to a campaign called Fix the Debt, another one of Blackstone private equity group’s founder Peter G. Peterson’s debt reduction lobbying organizations.

As negotiations between President Obama and Republican congressional leaders on a debt reduction deal got underway, Blankfein and other corporate leaders who belong to Fix the Debt began lobbying members of Congress and taking their message to media outlets.

Fix the Debt has been circumspect about specific safety net cuts that it supports, saying only that benefit levels for all safety net programs should be on the table when negotiations over debt reduction take place.

Blankfein, however, was a bit more forthcoming when he told CBS’ Scott Pelley that the eligibility age for Social Security should be raised and benefits for health programs that help the elderly, the disabled, and low-income workers should be lowered. He also suggested that Social Security’s cost of living raises should be lowered.

In addition to lowering safety net benefits, Fix the Debt wants to fix the debt by reducing taxes, especially taxes on the wealthy.

It wants to preserve the Bush tax cuts that are set to expire in January. These tax cuts, enacted early during the administration of President Bush, have primarily benefited the wealthy. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, America’s richest 1 percent received on average an extra $66,384 in 2011 because of the Bush tax cuts. In the same year, the average US income was $58,506.

Blankfein and other members of Fix the Debt also want to reduce the highest marginal tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent and to exempt corporations from paying taxes on foreign earnings that are returned to the US as profits. That exemption would mean a windfall of as much as $134 billion for 63 corporations whose CEOs have signed on to Fix the Debt campaign.

While Fix the Debt’s corporate leaders seek to reduce the federal debt by feathering their own nests with tax cuts and making retirement more precarious for the rest of us, their own retirement isn’t just secure; it’s opulent.

The Institute of Policy Studies reports that the average retirement assets of the 71 Fix the Debt CEOs whose companies are publicly held is $9.1 million.

Fifty-four of them participate in their company’s retirement program and have collective retirement assets worth $644 million, or more than $12 million per CEO, enough to generate a monthly pension payment of more than $65,000 for the rest of their lives.

The Fix the Debt CEO with the most pension assets is David Cote of Honeywell. His pension is worth $36 million and his deferred compensation $41.9 million, for a total of $77.9 million.

Blankfein doesn’t fare as well. His pension is worth only $30,000, and his deferred compensation $11.8 million, giving him a total retirement package of $11.8 million.

Meanwhile IPS reports that to generate an annual retirement income of $25,000 a year not including Social Security, a worker would need to have $500,000 worth of savings, but 34 percent of US workers have no retirement assets of any kind.

And the outlook will be bleaker in the not so distant future because more workers will have to depend on Social Security, whose average monthly benefit is only $1,237, for either their primary or only source of income during their retirement. Nearly half of all private sector workers in their fifties, 44 percent, have neither a traditional defined benefit pension nor a 401(k) type savings plan.

Only 20 percent of the private sector workforce is covered by a traditional pension, down from 83 percent in 1980. While 84 percent of public sector workers are covered by traditional pensions, 25 percent will receive no Social Security benefit because they don’t contribute to Social Security.

Since 2009, one year after the Great Recession began, 35 states have reduced pension benefits for public sector workers.