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A Real Social Security Crisis

The Social Security Administration is struggling a bit these days. It has 57 million "customers" but no permanent director. It's absorbed stiff budget cuts in recent years, and the sequester piled on even more. Its computer systems are, relatively speaking, paleolithic.


Perhaps nowhere are the agency's problems more evident than in the program that relies on middle people to receive and handle payments for beneficiaries who are unable to manage their own affairs. While the vast majority of Social Security beneficiaries receive payments directly, about one in seven - nearly 8.5 million Americans, mainly children and older people with serious physical and mental disabilities - are assigned a " representative payee." Last year some $72 billion flowed to beneficiaries this way - or at least was supposed to.

Related: Top 7 Facts You Need to Know About the 2013 Social Security Trustees Report

The SSA can't properly oversee the program, the Government Accountability Office recently concluded, because it doesn't have a staff and strategy to get the job done. What's more, the GAO found, the agency doesn't have a long-term plan to cope with the inevitable expansion of the program as vastly larger numbers of Americans hit retirement age.

As it turns out, the SSA doesn't even have much of a short-term plan. The GAO found that while its top officials regularly tout better oversight procedures, the agency has no idea whether they even work.

Take, for instance, a pilot program the SSA set up in its Philadelphia region to keep unsuitable candidates - murderers, say, or convicted identity thieves - from becoming representative payees. It's based on the honor system, judging from this exchange, in a recent congressional hearing, between Rep. Mike Thompson of California and LaTina Burse Greene, an SSA official:

REP. THOMPSON: Ms. Greene, so you don't do any background checks on people? People just come in and say, "Yeah, I'm fine. I'm law-abiding and put me in charge as [a representative payee] -

MS. GREENE: That is correct. Currently we rely on self-reporting.

Oh, and then there's the paperwork. Representative payees are required to submit an annual report that accounts for what they did with the benefits (that's the $72 billion a year noted above). Last year the SSA mailed out about 6.5 million accounting reports to representative payees, but some 840,000 of them - 13.2 percent - weren't even returned. And of those that were, the SSA found some 1.5 million reports with "questionable responses."

You'd think that some follow-up might be in order, but don't expect it anytime soon. "SSA has demonstrated," the GAO's report says, "that it cannot effectively administer the program within its current resources and structure."


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