A recent bipartisan Senate committee report shows that the Social Security Administration is closing field offices and reducing services to the public at the same time demand for those services has rocketed with the aging of the baby boomer generation.
For Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and those who either worked in or sought services at the just-closed Amherst field office, this reduction in services is not news. In fact, Higgins even introduced a bill that would require the agency to halt office closings until it can prove to Congress that it has targeted the correct sites for closure.
He and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., demanded an in-person meeting with the acting head of Social Security to discuss the Amherst office, but instead got a conference call. Unfortunately, their efforts resulted in only a one-month delay before the office closed in late April.
Higgins says the Amherst field office served about 36,000 people a year, including residents of 17 of the 36 nursing homes in Erie County.
The report issued by the Senate Special Committee on Aging says the agency has closed more than two dozen field offices in the last year, generally without considering the needs of communities and without consulting beneficiaries or field office managers.
Those actions show a complete denial of what is happening demographically. Baby boomers are hitting their retirement ages in large numbers and that trend will continue for years. Now would seem exactly the wrong time to pull back services.
Agency officials have said that they have received $1 billion less than requested by President Obama in the last three years to operate, which has led to closings, consolidations and reduced office hours. There may be valid reasons for retrenching, but it should be done in a transparent and logical manner.
As Higgins pointed out, the agency did not take into account Amherst’s high senior citizen population – his district is home to about 180,000 Social Security recipients. Nor did it consider those requiring assistance with disability claims. There is also a large number of international students at the University at Buffalo needing assistance with paperwork for on-campus employment or obtaining a New York State driver’s license.
The Village of Williamsville is attempting to fill a small part of the gap created by the loss of the Amherst office. Services will be available at Village Hall via webcam conference with staff at the Social Security Administration field office in Buffalo. That operation should start in early August, but with very limited availability: one or two days a week for a few hours to handle appointments made through the Social Security Administration.
In opening the office, Williamsville Mayor Brian Kulpa said, “It’s about giving people the opportunity to still have a face-to-face conversation with staff that are so vital in their ability to collect benefits.” The federal government needs to show as much concern.
Social Security offices remain open, for now, in Niagara Falls and West Seneca, likely part of the reason the Amherst office was targeted, but a generation of senior citizens should not find it more difficult to access the benefits they are entitled to. Improved online accessibility is important and will help many people, but not everyone has access to the Internet.
Congress has a responsibility to see that the Social Security Administration is not reducing services at this critical time.