Errors rob thousands of students of Social Security benefits
"The public would be shocked to see how archaic our operating systems are."
WASHINGTON – The Social Security Administration prides itself on being “passionate about supporting our customers by delivering financial support” and “providing superior customer service.”
Passionate support and superior service does not describe the experiences of almost 14,500 students cheated out of nearly $60 million by the agency.
Data entry mistakes by Social Security employees resulted in the underpayments, according to an internal watchdog audit report released last week.
Investigators with the SSA Office of Inspector General determined that almost all the students in a sample selection were incorrectly cut off from payments when they reached age 18. Eighty-seven of the 100 students in the sample were underpaid by a total of $357,872. Their average underpayment was $4,113.
Based on that sample, the inspector general estimated that 14,470 student beneficiaries were underpaid by $59.5 million between January 2003 and May 2020.
While Social Security is generally thought of as a financial program for old folks, thousands of young people benefit from it, too. Most children of older or disabled beneficiaries who receive Social Security payments lose their benefits when they turn 18. But the payments are supposed to continue if they are in an elementary or secondary school or have a disability. The students must be enrolled full time, meaning at least 20 hours a week, and not be more than 19 years and two months old.
As troubling as the underpayments are, also disturbing is the agency’s lack of action when the mistakes were discovered.
“In July 2020, we provided SSA with information about these 87 students,” the audit report said. “As of December 2021, SSA had corrected one of these errors.”
Later in the report: “The system produced alerts in 4 of the 87 error cases in our sample; however, we found no evidence SSA employees took the necessary actions to pay these students.”
In a statement, the agency acknowledged the errors and the “significant impact on people,” while noting the reported cases “represent a very small fraction of all student cases handled.”
Agency officials did not explain the lack of action reported by investigators, nor did they say everyone who was cheated has been made whole. “We are also looking at these cases,” the statement said, “and will make necessary corrections and issue underpayments as appropriate.”
Ralph C. de Juliis, president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ National Council of Social Security Administration Field Operations Locals, blamed SSA’s problems on “frighteningly out-of-date” computer systems, “with no ability to do even basic functions like verifying continued eligibility automatically.”
For Social Security advocates, the audit’s findings are unsettling but, sadly, not unexpected.
“SSA wrongly denying benefits to 87% of the students whose cases its Inspector General examined is distressing but, unfortunately, not surprising,” said Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, an advocacy group. “SSA’s mission is to ensure that families receive their earned benefits on time and in full. In the last few decades, however, those in Congress who are hostile to Social Security have pushed SSA aggressively to pursue overpayments at the expense of underpayments and timely determinations.”
Altman blamed “this thumb on the scale” for causing the agency “to myopically focus on preventing people from being paid too much instead of preventing them from being paid too little. Indeed, it’s been over a year and a half since the IG provided SSA with information about those students who were underpaid. Yet, as of December, the agency had only corrected the underpayment of one of the 87 students the IG had identified.”
Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, called the underpayments “a symptom of the chronic underfunding of core agency functions, like staffing, training and systems.”
Social Security “did not have adequate controls” to ensure those who are 18 years old and still in school received benefits,” the inspector general’s report said. Two computer systems “did not generate alerts when SSA employees erroneously input student information in the systems.” Another system “did not identify these errors or produce alerts” informing employees of the problems.
In one example, an 18-year-old submitted an agency form showing he would continue as a full-time student and was entitled to benefits. But “an employee incorrectly input student data,” the audit found, which terminated the student’s benefits.” That robbed him of 15 months of additional benefits worth $19,620.
Errors can appear minor but have major consequences. In another case, the audit said an employee incorrectly recorded a student’s school year information “and the beneficiary did not receive benefits once she attained age 18.”
Social Security officials agreed with the report’s recommendations, which included paying beneficiaries the money owed, training employees to properly enter student information into the computer systems, and updating those systems so they alert employees to potentially incorrect information and when the information indicates an 18-year-old is a full-time student whose benefits should continue.
The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare has a bolder recommendation to assist students and their parents. Its legislative agenda for 2022 says student benefits should continue until age 22 for full-time students, as was the case before Congress ended postsecondary benefits in 1981.
“Restoring this benefit would help those who must defer saving for their retirement,” the committee said in a statement, “because they are assisting their children with college or vocational school expenses.”
Whether eligibility is expanded or not, “bureaucratic mistakes shouldn’t lead to the denial of students’ benefits, and those mistakes are more likely to happen after years of chronic underfunding,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, chairman of the Senate Finance Social Security subcommittee. “The IG’s findings underscore that the agency needs additional funding to update its technology, increase staffing, and deliver the service Americans expect.”
The SSA statement echoed that, saying that “appropriations for base administration have failed to cover our fixed costs over the past decade.”
De Juliis agreed on the need on the need for updated technology, adding, “The public would be shocked to see how archaic our operating systems are.”
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