Social Security envisions a new tech-savvy future

Agency embraces technology while juggling demand for increased face-to-face service

Jun 10, 2015 @ 12:42 pm

By Mary Beth Franklin

The timing couldn't be worse. Soon after the Social Security Administration unveiled its blueprint for increasing its use of technology to deliver customer services to aging and disabled Americans, news broke about the latest cyberattacks against a number of government websites.

But like it or not, the future is unstoppable and technology is part of the future.

“Our challenge is to embrace technological enhancements to achieve efficiency without sacrificing the personal service for which we are known,” Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin said in a statement accompanying the release last month of SSA's “Vision 2025” report.

Billed as the agency's strategic road map for the next 10 years, Vision 2025 says that the convergence of several trends, including an aging population, federal budget constraints, employee turnover and increased cyberthreats “present an unprecedented opportunity for bold changes, innovation and vision.”

For example, the 65+ population will increase by 18 million people by 2025 and by an additional 8 million by 2030, dramatically boosting the demand for Social Security benefits and services, according to the report. But by 2020, 29% of Social Security's employees will be eligible to retire, resulting in in a brain drain that could threaten various mission critical skills.

The demands for updated technology are increasing. Among Americans age 50 to 64 who represent the next wave of retirees, 83% regularly use the internet and email, compared to 56% of current retirees age 65 and older. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Americans younger than age 44 prefer handheld and mobile devices to access the internet.

Yet, Social Security's technology infrastructure and systems are decades old and in need of replacement or repair. Throw in the always uncertain federal budget outlook and you have a bureaucratic train wreck in the making.

Over the past 80 years, the agency has evolved from issuing individually typed Social Security cards after the act was signed into law in 1935 to persuading more than 19 million Americans to open personalized accounts online today. Still, that represents only about 15% of the nation's approximately 122 million full-time workers and an even smaller percentage if you count part-time and former employees.

The agency has made great strides since it launched the online estimated benefits statement in 2012, but it still has a long way to go to convince Americans about the importance of logging on to ssa.gov/myaccount to view estimates of their future retirement benefits and to verify the accuracy of their annually reported earnings, which will determine the amount of those benefits.

But for millions of baby boomers on the verge of applying for retirement benefits, the prospects of an online application may be daunting, particularly if they want to engage in sophisticated claiming strategies such as file and suspend or filing a restricted claim for spousal benefits that could enhance their lifetime benefits.

For example, the SSA website says you can apply online for retirement benefits or benefits as a spouse as early as three months before your 62nd birthday if you want benefits to start as soon as you are eligible. Or, you can apply for those same benefits at older ages, but if you want benefits to begin more than four months beyond your application date, you can't do that online.

That means if you want to file and suspend your benefits at your full retirement age of 66 and delay collecting them until they are worth the maximum amount at age 70, you'll have to make an appointment at your local Social Security office by calling 800-772-1213.

The situation is a bit different for another popular claiming strategy known as filing a restricted claim for spousal benefits (assuming your spouse has already claimed his or her Social Security benefits or has filed and suspended their retirement benefits in order to trigger a spousal benefit for you). Filing a restricted claim would allow you to collect only your spousal benefits — worth 50% of your mate's full retirement age amount — while your own benefits continue to accrue delayed retirement credits worth 8% per year for every year you postpone collecting them beyond your full retirement age up to age 70.

Although an SSA spokesman told me that you can put a request to restrict your claim to spousal benefits in the “remarks” section of your online application, I would want to discuss that decision with a SSA representative — no matter how long I might have to wait for an appointment. There is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting and a personal assurance that you can choose when and how to claim benefits in a way that makes the most sense to your personal retirement income plan. But if I have that discussion via video chat — one of the goals of the Vision 2025 — so be it. It's a brave new world.

(Questions about Social Security? Find the answers in my ebook.)

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