Social Security pays benefits to roughly 60 million Americans, and many of those who receive Social Security checks every month rely on them to make ends meet. That fact created a lot of nervousness among retirees and other benefit recipients during the recent two-day government shutdown. Although lawmakers agreed to a temporary reprieve to reopen the government, many believe that a future shutdown could come as soon as a couple of weeks from now.
It's reasonable for those who count on Social Security to worry what would happen if lawmakers can't come to a compromise in time to avoid another shutdown situation. Yet even if the government does close its doors again, most Social Security recipients generally shouldn't worry -- although some aspects of a shutdown could cause problems for a select group of those turning to Social Security for help.
How the Social Security Administration handles a shutdown
To get a sense of what happens during a shutdown, it's useful to look at the letter that the Social Security Administration sent to the Office of Management and Budget last week in anticipation of last weekend's events. In that letter, SSA Deputy Commissioner Michelle King outlined the agency's contingency plan for continuing activities during a shutdown, explaining that the plan is consistent with previous plans submitted back in 2015.
In particular, the SSA included most of its most vital services as continued activities during a shutdown. These include applications for Social Security benefits, requests for appeals, changes in payee for benefits, and handling situations in which benefits weren't properly paid. Critical information technology support for these functions will also be available.
Most importantly, benefits will continue to be paid to Social Security recipients during a government shutdown. Funding for both retirement and disability payments comes from dedicated trust funds that have independent funding even when a government shutdown reflects a lack of financial capacity for the Treasury's general fund to borrow. The SSA also has the ability under federal law governing shutdowns to claim exemptions from general requirements to shut down operations, such as for safety of human life and the necessary implication provisions that exist for certain Social Security functions.
What does shut down at the SSA?
Even with those key exceptions, things aren't entirely business as usual at the Social Security Administration during a shutdown, as many services aren't available. Original and replacement Social Security cards can't be obtained while the government is shut down, and the SSA won't verify benefits or deal with corrections to workers' earnings records.
If you have a dispute with the SSA, then delays could occur in handling your claims during a shutdown. The contingency plan calls for discontinuing activities like hearing and deciding appeals, tracking new cases and putting them on the legal docket, and processing complaints alleging bias in claims handling. Even elected officials can't necessarily pull strings during a shutdown, as the SSA also discontinues responses to congressional inquiries regarding support for casework on hearings and appeals for their respective constituents.
Be ready for the next shutdown
Most people hope that the federal government will be able to work out its internal differences and come to a resolution that will keep the Social Security Administration and other vital government services working for the foreseeable future. Yet it should put seniors who rely on Social Security for their livelihood somewhat at ease to know that even if a future government shutdown does happen, they'll still be able to get the vital benefits they need to survive.