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Two Subcommittees Examine Social Security Challenges

On May 2, the House Ways and Means Subcommittees on Social Security and Human Resources held a joint hearing on the challenges facing the new Social Security Commissioner.

In announcing the hearing, Social Security Subcommittee Chair Clay Shaw (R-FL) outlined some of the concerns of the subcommittees: “Chief among these is saving Social Security from bankruptcy. Second is the ability to deliver effective service and stewardship, as workloads rise 50 percent and more than half the agency’s employees are eligible to retire in the coming decade. Equally important is fixing a broken disability determination and a return-to-work process where workers with disabilities wait far too long to receive benefits they deserve. Lastly, as we have seen in our numerous hearings on identity theft and from the tragic events of September 11th, safeguards to protect Social Security numbers must be enhanced.”

Testimony from a majority of the witnesses at the hearing echoed Mr. Shaw’s concerns regarding delays in disability payments, staffing problems, and the integrity of the program. Social Security Administrator Jo Anne Barnhart focused on management problems in her agency and her vision for addressing those problems. She testified, “I did not assume my duties as Commissioner of Social Security in order to manage the status quo.” She vowed to work with Congress and the Administration to “find the best solutions.”

Former Congresswoman Barbara Kennelly of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare told the subcommittees that she hoped “we can move to address the real disadvantages women face under the current Social Security system.” Emphasizing that women are still the primary caregivers in families across America, she said, “they still earn less than men on average, even for similar work,” and consequently they “do not have the same access to pensions or other types of retirement income.”

Ms. Kennelly recommended, “One sensible reform would be to leave out of the benefit calculation any years during which an individual had zero earnings due to family caregiving responsibilities.” She also recommended increasing the benefit for surviving spouses and the restoration of the minimum benefit. Additionally, she complimented Rep. Shaw for introducing the Women’s Benefits Improvement Act (H.R. 4069).

Among the provisions included in H.R. 4069 are: a repeal of the seven-year restriction on eligibility for widow’s and widower’s insurance benefits based on disability and a waiver of the two-year waiting period for a divorced spouse’s benefits upon the marriage of the other spouse.

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