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Record cutbacks at Social Security as retirement claims surge

As the gradual retirement of the Baby Boomers foists more people onto its rolls than ever before, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has been reducing services and shuttering field offices at a record clip, according to a report released Wednesday by a bipartisan Senate committee.

The SSA has closed 64 field offices since 2010, including over two-dozen in just the last year, marking the largest five-year decline in service locations in the agency's history, the Senate Special Committee on Aging notes. It has also reduced a number of in-person services, trying to shift seniors and other beneficiaries into an online system, and it has cut roughly 11,000 workers from its payroll in the last three years.

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As a result of these closures, the report says, "communities are too often left without the resources they need."

Too often, the SSA's closure procedures exclude "both its own managers and the affected public," the report says. The administration "rarely surveyed what would happen to a community if an office closed there and failed to detail any remaining or transition services that would be available."

"Seniors are not being served well when you arbitrarily close offices and reduce access to services," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., according to the New York Times. "The closure office is neither fair nor transparent and needs to change."

The SSA had told Congress that it uses six metrics to determine whether an office should be closed, including the impact on the public and SSA employees, the demographics of the area each office serves, and the facility's proximity to other offices.

But the report says the closures often appear to be arbitrary, panning four of the six metrics identified by the SSA as "incomplete or insufficient."

"Ultimately SSA has no clear way to compare office against each other and determine which offices are most needed by the American public," the report notes.

SSA officials have blamed the cutbacks on budget constraints, saying they've been squeezed between increasing demand and the same budget pressures that have affected the entire federal government.

The SSA has seen a "staggering" 27 percent increase in retirement claims since 2007, from 2.6 million to 3.3 million, according to testimony prepared for the hearing on Wednesday for Nancy Berryhill, a deputy commissioner with the SSA.

The report notes the fiscal crunch facing the SSA, explaining, "Continuing budget constraints, which began at the start of the decade, have forced SSA to make difficult decisions to reduce service to the public."

"It is beyond question that eliminating superfluous services, including certain field offices, makes sense for an agency looking for ways to serve more with less," the report states. "However, it is also clear that the agency has not done enough to consider the impact of the decisions it has made in recent years on the people who rely on Social Security the most: the poor, disabled or otherwise limited elderly populations."

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