New Year's resolutions for social security. Streamlining system; catching illegal workers

Dorcas Hardy has ambitious plans for the Social Security Administration. As its commissioner, she wants to emphasize service, increase productivity, and combat what she sees as a ``mini-crisis of public confidence'' in social security, especially among the young.

In the spring the Social Security Administration also plans to undertake a pilot program to check on aliens seeking jobs. If widely used, it could help American employers determine whether job applicants who are not citizens are legal or illegal aliens, by checking on whether their social security cards are legitimate. In the test program employers in Texas will be able to ask the Social Security Administration by telephone whether the name and number on a social security card matches those on file.

Under terms of the immigration law approved by Congress this year, employers under penalty of law cannot knowingly hire illegal aliens. Recently Ms. Hardy's agency has been distributing to new applicants social security cards on special paper that makes them difficult to counterfeit. The agency hands out some 12 million new cards every year.

In a meeting with a small group of reporters Hardy said that the 22,000 new IBM computer terminals now being delivered to the Social Security Administration will provide ``a real opportunity to improve service,'' and to increase employee productivity. Some employees have already undergone training, she says, adding that the entire computer system should be operating in 1 to 2 years. The aim of the computer system is to permit the Social Security Administration to speed up its service while cutting its labor force and costs.

Reports surface from time to time of delays that individuals have faced when they sought help from the Social Security Administration. But officials say service, on balance, has been improving. For instance, new cards are generally issued in 10 or 11 days instead of six weeks, as during the early 1980s, and emergency payments for lost checks are made to social security recipients in four or five days, instead of 10 or 12.

But Hardy wants to do better: One of her goals for 1987 is to ``emphasize service.'' A social security office, she says, is ``service to people.'' Americans should be able to get good service on the telephone, as well as in person.

At the same time, Hardy says the reduction in the number of social security employees, who numbered more than 80,000 in 1984, can continue without scuttling efforts to improve service. The number of employees, which she says can be decreased through attrition, is to level out at about 62,000 in 1990.

Computerizing the system and increasing employee productivity may hold the keys to whether the agency can simultaneously increase service and reduce personnel.

Social security productivity, Hardy says, ought to be higher in many parts of the country. She would like agency offices everywhere to be as productive as the office in Atlanta, which she says works about 25 percent more efficiently than the slowest offices.

Hardy says she hopes an advertising campaign can be developed to counter the misconceptions of young workers. The surplus social security trust fund is growing faster than anticipated, she says. At the end of this year estimates say it will be $44.4 billion, which is what the agency spends in 2 months. When Congress and the Reagan administration made changes in the trust fund, to keep it solvent, they financed it so that the amount of surplus in the fund would build up until early next century, so as to finance the retirement of the baby boomers.

Yet working Americans who are only a few years out of school generally believe one of two misconceptions, she says. One is that no money will be left in the fund to finance their retirement; the other is that they are putting away money to finance their own retirement.

Neither is accurate, she says. Sufficient funds will exist to pay for the retirement of all current workers. Today's workers are not banking money for their own retirement: They are paying the social security costs of current retirees. It is tomorrow's workers - now first-graders - who will pay for the retirement of today's young workers.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.