Social Security recipients -- including the disabled, the elderly, and children -- pay a high price for this ideologically motivated crusade. That tells us that the people who govern us can be extraordinarily insensitive to the human costs of their actions. Many disabled and elderly Social Security recipients depend on field offices, and the workers in them, to help them navigate the system.
More than two-thirds of the Social Security Administration's 66,000 employees work in the field offices. (They'll pay a human cost for the closings, too. Why are allegedly "pro-jobs" politicians eliminating jobs instead?)
The wait time for disability hearings is already an unacceptably high 396 days as of last September, according to the SSA's own annual report, and it gets worse every year. As the report notes: "... sustained growth in hearings requests and a recent inability to hire additional judges from the administrative law judge register have slowed our progress in reducing the hearings backlogs."
A tangled web
The rationale most frequently given for these cuts is that people can now access these services online. But seniors are far less likely to use the Internet than other Americans. Only 57 percent of people over 65 are online, according to the latest Pew study, as opposed to 87 percent overall. Minorities and lower-income households are also far less likely to use the Internet, adding a discriminatory element to these decisions.
What's more, there is some evidence which suggests that elderly Americans are especially reluctant to provide or receive personal information through the Internet. (There is also some evidence that their concerns are justified.)
Here's how cynical this game gets: The very same Republicans who are using healthcare.gov's problems as proof that "government doesn't work" are driving an ever-increasing share of Social Security's administration onto the Internet -- and then underfunding that effort.
See where this is going?
Perhaps trying to make the best of a bad situation, acting SSA commissioner Carolyn Colvin sounds overly optimistic when forecasting the impact of this shift. "We'll ... need face-to-face services for some people," she told Miller, "but most customers will prefer to interact with us online or by phone."
The latest services slated for elimination are Social Security number printouts and benefit verification forms. These services are most needed by lower-income recipients who must provide them when applying for other forms of assistance. These are precisely the recipients who are least likely to have Internet access (and we already know that busy signals have doubled on SSA customer service lines).
We were also told with great fanfare that eliminating the mailing of annual statements would save $70 million a year. But, as Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times notes, that is a tiny number -- roughly 1 percent of an administration budget that is itself a small percentage of total costs. A cynical observer might conclude that one reason for ending this practice is to prevent Americans from noticing the change if and when Social Security's benefits are cut against their will.
(And when it comes to the conservative assault against Social Security, which is sometimes joined by members of both parties, even the most idealistic among us is tempted to become a "cynical observer.")
Looking for a champion
Why hasn't this become a rallying cry? These cuts hurt the elderly, the disabled, and low-income Americans especially hard. They're reducing the budget just as the baby-boom generation ages into retirement, bringing years of increased demand for these services.
There's only one rational conclusion: They want problems, to build momentum for Social Security privatization.