On 74th anniversary of the first Social Security payment, congressman fights to protect services in WNY
Congressman Brian Higgins stood with Western New York residents, businesses, and employees concerned the proposal to close the Social Security office in Amherst would have a serious impact on the population it serves.
"Seventy-four years ago today, Jan. 31, 1940, Ida May Fuller became the first American to receive a Social Security check, and it was because she stepped into a field office like the one we have here in Amherst to speak one-on-one with a claims clerk and learn more about the program," Higgins said. "It is easy for Washington, D.C., decision-makers to suggest people should just go online or visit another office, but this office, with its proximity to the University at Buffalo and a concentration of senior and social service facilities, helps a very specialized population that is best served right here in Amherst."
History of Service
In 1939, Fuller visited the Rutland, Vt., Social Security office to ask about benefits. Social Security Administration employee Elizabeth Corcoran Burke transmitted the claim for adjudication and, once approved, it was sent to the U.S. Treasury Department for payment. Fuller received the first Social Security check in the nation for $22.54 on Jan. 31, 1940.
Steven Serrano, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3342, said, "Thousands of people use this office every year, and that number will grow as the population continues to age and apply for benefits. Who will be here to answer the questions so many disabled people have about whether they qualify for the Social Security disability program? Who will be here when a young person who just lost a parent comes here to find out about survivors benefits? And who will be here for the many questions people have about their retirement benefits? The answer is: If this office closes, there will be no one to help any of these people."
The Amherst facility serves a 268.9-square-mile area with a population of 384,515. The office has seen a 69 percent cut in staffing over the past 20 years - the largest reduction of the 20 Western New York regional offices - yet it continues to serve a large caseload. In 2013, the Amherst office processed more than 32 percent of all retirement, survivors and disability insurance claims in Erie County, and assisted approximately 36,000 people through that site specifically.
Impact on Business and Specialized Populations
In 2006, People Inc., a nonprofit human services agency that serves people with disabilities, deliberately opened a service coordination department in the same building as the Amherst Social Security office. People Inc. helps to manage the expenses of 900 individuals who receive a form of Social Security, and the agency's 200 employees who work out of that site work on a daily basis with the 22 employees in the Amherst Social Security office to facilitate cases and expedite problems.
Every year, there are more than 400 Social Security reviews of individuals for which People Inc. serves as the payee. A shutdown of this location would not only break an invaluable direct connection between People Inc. and Amherst SSA employees who meet the needs of people with disabilities, but People Inc. and the individuals it serves would have to pay thousands of dollars in new transportation costs.
A person living in Amherst taking public transit would have to take a bus, rail and walk more than a quarter-mile to reach the Social Security office in Buffalo - a trip taking more than an hour one-way.
"Most of the individuals that our staff at this location assists have a disability," said Rhonda Frederick, chief operating officer of People Inc. "We moved here almost 10 years ago so that our staff of almost 200 people could help the several hundred people we aid and advocate for at this location almost daily. The Social Security workers at this location know our folks and are wonderful with servicing them. Frankly, this move could be detrimental not only to our people with disabilities, but the economic viability of this plaza."
The University at Buffalo, whose north and south campuses are in close proximity to the Amherst field office, is home to 5,200 international students who rely on the Social Security office to assist with the necessary paperwork for on-campus employment or obtaining a New York state driver's license.
Ellen Dussourd, assistant vice provost and director of international student and scholar services, said, "The Amherst Social Security office is a vital resource for UB's international faculty, researchers and students who need Social Security cards for their employment at UB. Since they often do not have cars, these individuals who teach UB's classes and conduct research in its labs will be negatively impacted. UB has long enjoyed a close working relationship with the Amherst Social Security office, and is quite concerned at the prospect that it may close. So we are very appreciative of Congressman Higgins' efforts to keep it open."
During fall orientation, UB busses more than 200 students to the Amherst Social Security office in one day alone. International students, many who work as teaching assistants, resident assistants, graduate assistants or visiting scholars, need to apply for Social Security cards to work in the U.S. In addition, any international student or scholar applying for a New York driver's license must first obtain a letter from SSA.
"The Amherst Chamber of Commerce, representing over 2,500 members and 107 ZIP codes in the Buffalo Niagara region, applauds Congressman Higgins' efforts to maintain the full operation of the Social Security office located in Amherst," the agency stated. "This office location is accessible to over 200,000 residents in Amherst and the adjacent community of Tonawanda. While we recognize the need for fiscal constraints as it relates to the dedication of tax dollars, closing a heavily utilized location that meets the needs of a significant portion of the constituent base is not good public policy."
Impact on Seniors
In the Social Security Administration's own service area review, it notes, "Amherst services 17 of the 36 nursing homes in Erie County," and "as a result, Amherst has a large amount of centenarian cases for the area."
"Closing this social security office will unduly burden tens of thousands of Amherst seniors, forcing the elderly and disabled to travel further to access their essential and hard-earned social security services," said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer. "That is why I'm urging the Social Security Administration to reverse course and keep the doors open at the popular Amherst office, which serves over 36,000 seniors a year. These seniors have worked hard their whole lives and earned these benefits, and they have earned first-class service."
The Rev. Dr. William L. Wipfler, an 82-year old Western New Yorker who has worked as a missionary and Episcopal clergy for more than 50 years, and served in various roles with the Alzheimer's Association, also spoke at the event. He expressed concern about the severe difficulties this closing would represent for the elderly. He pointed out that, although the region's overall population has declined over the past decade, the senior population is growing.
According to 2010 census numbers:
•Erie County's age 85-plus population has increased by 27.4 percent since 2000.
•The Town of Amherst has seen a 39 percent growth in residents age 85-plus, as well as a growth in the age 60-plus population, which now represents nearly a quarter of the town's population (23.9 percent).
•In Clarence, residents ages 60-plus have increased by 40.5 percent, and the age 85-plus group has increased by nearly 68 percent.
•Grand Island residents age 60-plus represent more than 21 percent of the town's population, a 51 percent increase over the past decade, and age 85-plus residents have grown by more than 85 percent.
•In the City and Town of Tonawanda, the age 85-plus population has grown by 63.6 percent and 51.5 percent, respectively.
Higgins pointed out these numbers demonstrate the very area served by the Amherst office far exceeds the national average, which has seen a 10-year population increase of 15 percent for those age 65 and above, and 29.5 percent for those ages 85 and older.
Social Security Administration Accountability Act
When the SSA first announced plans to close the Amherst field office on Jan. 15, Higgins pledged to fight it. On Jan. 21, he sent a letter to the acting commissioner of Social Security objecting to the shutdown.
Higgins plans to introduce the Social Security Administration Accountability Act, which would require the SSA to halt field office closings until SSA transmit to Congress a report that includes caseload data, service population and staffing levels at field offices, as well as the process by which office closings are selected.