"Program integrity" is the sort of technical term that sounds good. Who wouldn't want to run Social Security with integrity? But unfortunately, in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of Washington-speak, the phrase doesn't mean what you think.
"Program integrity" is insider-code for saving money. How is money saved? By going after people who have done nothing wrong.
Administering Social Security with integrity sounds as if it means ensuring that the right payments go to the right people in the right amounts. You would think it means that the Social Security Administration (SSA) helps working families get the benefits that they have earned. Instead, it means the opposite.
"Program integrity" is insider-code for saving money. How is money saved? By going after people who have done nothing wrong. By going after people with serious disabilities who must prove over and over again that they are unable to support themselves. By going after people whose benefits SSA claims were wrongly paid out, often because of mistakes made by SSA itself.
The targets may be homeless. They may not speak English. They may have intellectual challenges. They almost never have professional representatives to help them through the extremely stressful, complicated, and time-consuming process of challenging the government.
Imagine being a senior who has no other income than your monthly benefit of $794 (the maximum federal benefit from Social Security's companion program, Supplemental Security Income). You live frugally, even cutting your medications in half because you can't afford them.
You follow all the complicated rules, including informing SSA that your child has moved back to town and is buying you groceries once a week. Months go by. Then, out of the blue, SSA notifies you that your SSI benefit should have been reduced by the value of those groceries so you must refund that overpayment in the next 30 days!
Nor is this state-run hounding limited to those with low income and little education. My colleague's mother received Social Security benefits as a divorced spouse. When she remarried, she went to the SSA office with her new husband. She told the claims representative that she just remarried and requested a new Social Security card in her new, married name.
One day, out of the blue, she opened her mail and found a notice from SSA announcing that she owed the government $55,000, which she was instructed to repay immediately. (Unbeknownst to her, the spousal benefit based on her first marriage was supposed to cease when she remarried.) Her son, who is a Social Security expert, spent six months talking to SSA to address the issue. Notwithstanding her son's expertise, diligence, and ability to advocate for her, the stress resulted in a short hospital stay and contributed to a serious, permanent deterioration in her health.
As the demand for the repayment of an eye-popping $55,000 illustrates, SSA may not catch its errors quickly. Mary Grice was four years old when her father died, leaving her mother and their five minor children with the Social Security survivors benefits he had earned for them. Fifty-four years later, four years after her mother passed away, she received a notice from SSA saying that it had overpaid the family and, though she had only been a child, she was on the hook for the overpayment!
Adding insult to injury, those who have received overpayments through no fault of their own are labeled "debtors" by SSA. Overpayments to "debtors" are systematically pursued as part of "program integrity," because they save Social Security money.
In contrast, when SSA pays smaller benefits than it should, it often fails to correct these underpayments. Five years ago, SSA discovered that, due to computer errors, it was failing to pay benefits to hundreds of thousands of children. Shockingly, it has still not even contacted those families, much less paid the years of benefits owed.
The number of uncorrected underpayments is huge. Last year, SSA's inspector general followed up on a 2014 audit of underpayments. Looking only at new underpayments since its prior audit and only at deceased or otherwise terminated beneficiaries, it estimated that SSA had uncorrected underpayments owed to 45,496 people and totaling $142.5 million. That doesn't even include underpayments to those still receiving benefits or those who improperly never received benefits in the first place!
Republican-controlled congresses have zealously doubled down on these skewed priorities. They have cut SSA's overall administrative budget while earmarking increasingly large percentages of that budget for "program integrity." Moreover, for the last two decades, the only SSA commissioners confirmed by the Senate were nominated by Republican presidents. Those Republican commissioners share the skewed priorities.
For opponents of Social Security, going after benefits is a positive outcome. If they can't cut benefits legislatively, at least they can cut them through "program integrity." Their strategy is to treat everyone--from people with disabilities to seniors to children who have lost parents--as dishonest and eager to commit fraud. As a side benefit for opponents, an emphasis on going after people helps undermine confidence and support not only for Social Security, but for our government, more generally.
This adversarial mindset is a stark departure from how Social Security was administered in the past. Indeed, the first commissioner of Social Security, Arthur Altmeyer, understood that claimants had earned their benefits. Social Security representatives were to help, he stressed. They were not to act at arm's length, and certainly not to impose obstacles.
A federal statute had long been on the books that prohibited federal officials from assisting people who were making claims against the government. Citing the statute, GAO at first objected to the policy being set by Altmeyer. After a lengthy meeting, however, Altmeyer convinced the comptroller general that Social Security was a different kind of claim, and GAO withdrew its objection.
The irony of the focus by Social Security opponents on saving money is that Social Security is extremely efficient and accurate, much more so than its private insurance counterparts. Social Security spends less than one penny of every dollar on administration. The remaining more than 99 cents is spent on benefits. In stark contrast, private insurance companies spend 29.2 cents of every dollar on operating and other expenses and only 70.8 cents of each dollar on benefit payouts.
Moreover, Social Security's benefit payments are more than 99 percent accurate, with only a tiny fraction of the inaccurate payments due to fraud. Again, in stark contrast, private insurance companies experience fraud rates of ten percent and even higher rates of improper payouts, when non-fraudulent reasons are taken into account!
SSA must return to its roots, to its core mission of helping everyone get the benefits for which they are eligible. It should devote at least as much effort to underpayments as it does to overpayments. It should focus more on educating the public about the benefits for which they are eligible and less on challenging previously-awarded benefits.
As a related matter, SSA should restore the mailing of earnings and benefits statements to all workers aged 25 or older, as the law explicitly and clearly requires. This will help ensure accuracy by allowing workers to know what earnings are reported to SSA and to correct any errors in a timely way.