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									Administering sociAl security: chAllenges yesterdAy
And todAy
by Carolyn Puckett*

In 2010, the Social Security Administration (SSA) celebrates the 75th anniversary of the passage of the Social
Security Act. In those 75 years, SSA has been responsible for programs providing unemployment insurance, child
welfare, and supervision of credit unions, among other duties. This article focuses on the administration of the
Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program, although it also covers some of the other major programs
SSA has been tasked with administering over the years—in particular, Medicare, Black Lung benefits, and
Supplemental Security Income. The article depicts some of the challenges that have accompanied administering
these programs and the steps that SSA has taken to meet those challenges. Whether implementing complex legis-
lation in short timeframes or coping with natural disasters, SSA has found innovative ways to overcome problems
and has evolved to meet society’s changing needs.

Introduction                                                                Today, SSA faces many challenges. Nearly 80 mil-
                                                                        lion baby boomers will file for retirement benefits
They said it couldn’t be done. In 1935, the Social
                                                                        over the next 20 years, an average of 10,000 per day
Security Board, predecessor of the Social Security
                                                                        (SSA 2008e). The agency was already struggling
Administration (SSA), started to plan the implementa-
                                                                        with a backlog of disability claim hearings when the
tion of the Social Security Act. Board administrators
                                                                        2008 recession hit. The recession compounded the
contacted European experts who were experienced
                                                                        agency’s problems because the number of individuals
with such programs. The experts replied that it was
                                                                        filing for retirement and disability benefits increased.1
impossible to maintain a system for tracking individu-
                                                                        In addition, some states furloughed the SSA-funded
als’ earnings histories of the scope proposed for the
                                                                        state employees who make disability determinations
United States (McKinley and Frase 1970, 20–21; SSA
                                                                        for Social Security claimants. Keeping abreast of the
1997a; SSA 1964a). Despite these pessimistic assess-
                                                                        latest technology on a restricted budget has also been
ments, the Board persevered, and the Social Security
program was successfully launched 75 years ago this
month—and while the agency may have stumbled a                             Selected Abbreviations
few times during its 75-year history, it is still on its
                                                                           ALJ         administrative law judge
feet and getting the benefit payments out via the Trea-
sury Department every month. In fact, SSA has never                        AWR         annual wage reporting
missed a month of sending the payments out on time.                        BDI         Bureau of Disability Insurance
   SSA is an efficient agency with very low adminis-                       BDP         Bureau of Data Processing
trative costs of 0.9 percent of total expenditures (Board                  BL          black lung
of Trustees 2009). Agency employees have a very                            BOAI        Bureau of Old-Age Insurance
well-defined sense of the agency’s mission, and SSA                        BOASI       Bureau of Old-Age and Survivors Insurance
constantly strives to improve its service to the public.

* The author is with the Office of Research, Evaluation, and Statistics, Office of Retirement and Disability Policy, Social Security
Note: Contents of this publication are not copyrighted; any items may be reprinted, but citation of the Social Security Bulletin as the
source is requested. To view the Bulletin online, visit our Web site at The findings and conclusions
presented in the Bulletin are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Social Security Administration.

Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 70, No. 3, 2010                                                                                          27
                                                             Over the past 75 years, SSA’s responsibilities have
     Selected Abbreviations—Continued                     involved programs as wide-ranging as unemployment
     CDR     Continuing Disability Review                 insurance, child welfare, and credit union supervi-
     CMS     Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services   sion, among others. This article deals largely with
                                                          administering the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability
     DA&A    drug addiction and alcoholism
                                                          Insurance (OASDI) program. Over the years, SSA has
     DAO     Division of Accounting Operations            been tasked with administering other major programs
     DDO     Division of Disability Operations            in addition to OASDI—in particular, Medicare, Black
     DDS     Disabili
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