As the average age of Americans has risen, so has the number of people on Social Security. Yet the Social Security Administration has shut down 5 percent of its offices in the past five years, and reduced hours of operation at the ones still open.
That sounds like a flawed formula. As of April, more than 47 million retirees and roughly 11 million disabled workers, spouses and surviving children of deceased workers received Social Security benefits. As of each coming year, those numbers are projected to grow.
The Senate Special Committee on Aging focused on that apparent contradiction of logic during a recent hearing.
Nancy Berryhill, the agency's deputy commissioner for operations, defended the field-office cutbacks, citing the growing number of Americans who are using computers to handle their Social Security business.
She did stress the agency's commitment "to sustaining a field office structure that provides face-to-face service for those customers who need or prefer such service," but added that "customer expectations are evolving due to changes in technology, demographics and other factors."
Ms. Berryhill also pointed to budget limitations that forced the agency's field-office hand: "It is my job to balance service across the nation. That is a difficult chore."
Yet many elderly Americans still find navigating the labyrinth of the Social Security website a difficult chore, too.
Yes, many of the massive Baby Boomer generation now aging into Social Security eligibility are handy with computers. Some, though, are not.
And Social Security recipients still include many Americans who are older than Baby Boomers - and less likely to be adept with computers.
The Senate panel issued this statement challenging the agency's process in cutting back on field-office service: "The data the agency has compiled to justify its closures are incomplete or insufficient, and ultimately SSA has no clear way to compare offices against each other and determine which offices are most needed by the American public."
Beyond this controversy, however, lies a much larger problem facing Social Security - and the nation.
From the summary of last year's annual report from the Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees:
"Neither Medicare nor Social Security can sustain projected long-run programs in full under currently scheduled financing, and legislative changes are necessary to avoid disruptive consequences for beneficiaries and taxpayers. If lawmakers take action sooner rather than later, more options and more time will be available to phase in changes so that the public has adequate time to prepare."
Yet lawmakers keep putting off the hard choices - as in raising taxes and eligibility ages and lowering benefits - required to solve this intensifying problem.
And while Social Security is on an unsustainable course, Medicare's bottom-line plight is significantly worse.
So yes, Social Security officials should more carefully review how, when and where they close field offices.
But Congress, the president and all Americans should review this much more ominous reality:
Without fundamental, politically difficult reforms, Social Security - and Medicare - will keep accelerating toward fiscal oblivion.
And the longer we delay that task, the more painful it will be.
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