Fewer Americans seeing crucial Social Security document due to budget cuts

Image courtesy of Social Security Administration via Wikimedia Commons

It is one of the most important retirement documents you will ever receive – but fewer Americans are reviewing their Social Security benefit statement nowadays due to cost-cutting and a government push to online services that is falling short.

Until about a decade ago, all workers eligible for Social Security received a paper statement in the mail that provided useful projections of their benefits at various ages, along with reminders on the availability of disability benefits and Medicare enrollment information.

But the Social Security Administration (SSA) decided in 2010 to save money by eliminating most mailings of benefit statements. Instead, we would all be encouraged to obtain this information online.

It is now abundantly clear that this is not working out.

The number of workers accessing their statements online has been just a fraction of those who once were reached by paper statements. And the cost-benefit tradeoff is poor.

Forty-two million Americans have created online accounts with the SSA since they were first offered seven years ago, the agency says, compared with the 155 million paper statements that were mailed in 2010, before the cost-cutting began. Meanwhile, the number of online account-holders who accessed their statements fell dramatically in fiscal 2018, from 96 percent to 43 percent, according to a report issued in February by the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

The report does not speculate on reasons for the fall-off, and the SSA declined to offer its own analysis. “We’ll leave the hypothesizing to others,” said Mark Hinkle, acting press officer.

If you have an online account with the SSA, you will receive an email message three months before your birthday reminding you to review your statement. But the process of logging on can be challenging, partly due to security protections aimed at preventing identity theft and fraud. The security is necessary, but the setup process requires users to go through multiple layers of authentication to prove identity.

Meanwhile, the level of comfort with online technology among older people lags the general population, according to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center. For example, 51 percent of adults aged 65 or older have home broadband, compared with 73 percent of all adults. “We’ve seen the gaps close somewhat, but for the most part the differences haven’t changed much over the past five or six years,” said Monica Anderson, a senior researcher with Pew.

The SSA’s shift to online accounts is part of a broader agency strategy to handle most of its business with the public online by 2025. Yet the statement adoption rates underscore the problem with that strategy. Social Security is a near-universal program, and that means the agency serves many people who are less tech-savvy.

Read more: Reuters

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