Is Social Security Affected By A Government Shutdown?

The millions of Americans who rely on their Social Security benefits to survive are likely concerned when they hear anything along the lines of the government shutting down. Sadly government shutdowns appear to be a growing issue and are occurring with alarming regularity.

What people want to know is if Social Security is affected by government shutdowns. In this article we will look more closely at government shutdowns, what causes them and how they affect our daily lives.

What Is a Government Shutdown?

So called government shutdowns occur when there is a failure to enact funding legislation that would provide the finances for the next fiscal year. In 1980 under then President Jimmy Carter it was determined that the 1884 Antideficiency Act needed a new interpretation.

The result of this new line of thinking meant that a “lapse in appropriation” as a result of a political impasse would require the U.S. federal government to curtail the spending and activities of its agencies and services.

This would mean some agencies would close down, staff would be furloughed and services limited until such time as the government could agree on a new funding bill. The current system of deciding the fiscal year federal budget requires a vote in both the House and Senate on the spending bill.

It is since 1976 that the bill has required a vote in both the House and Senate to pass but it wasn’t until 1980 that the first government shutdown occurred. In total as of August 2022 there have been 10 government shutdowns. Each President since 1980 has had at least one occur during their terms in office.

Why Do Government Shutdowns Occur?

If you analyze each government shutdown you quickly realize that these shutdowns occur mainly as a political bargaining tool. It may be a bit generous to call it bargaining because essentially one side decides they want something while the other is determined to deny it from happening.

The most recent shutdown from December 2018 to January 2019 is a prime example of this. Then President Donald Trump blocked the passing of the funding bill demanding that 5.7 billion be appropriated for his border wall project.

Democratic lawmakers refused to allow this inclusion and instead were willing to find additional funds for extra border security. Trump did not accept this and demanded that wall funding be included. This stalemate lasted 35 days and cost the government something in the region of $5 billion.

It has been over three years since the last government shutdown but we will surely see more in the future. Sadly political agendas from both sides of the aisle can easily lead to disagreements about federal budgets. Politicians have no issue forcing a government shutdown to try and get what they want and it is the general public that suffers for it.

Do Government Shutdowns Affect Social Security Payments?

As Social Security payments are drawn from the Social Security Trust Fund, technically those who are already registered to receive them should not see a disruption to their payments. There is often speculation that checks will not arrive but this is not true.

The Social Security checks do not require congressional approval and are already provided for by the fund. Even during a complete shutdown of the government a small staff is kept to ensure the social security checks are issued and sent out.

As more and more people opt for direct deposit payments there is even less of a requirement for physical checks and therefore fewer staff are required to run this aspect of Social Security. Those reliant on Social Security can rest assured that the Social Security Administration has a contingency plan to keep the benefit payments moving to those who need them.

What About SSI and SSDI Payments?

When we think of social security we usually think of pensions but the administration also deals with Supplemental Income Payments (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). This means that people who may not be able to work due to disability or who can only work part time due to disability or caring for a family member can get financial help.

These payments just like pensions come from the same trust fund so if you are already set to receive these payments the government shutdown should not affect the payment of these benefits. The key however is that it is only existing benefit holders who are guaranteed to receive their benefits.

What if I’m Waiting for a Social Security Decision?

This may be a case in which you might need to be concerned about a government shutdown. The Social Security Administration will have been cut to a bare bones. As a result scheduled appearances in front of a judge for claims such as disability may take place but the enactment of the decision may not be resolved until the shutdown ends.

People may also be waiting longer for applications to be processed and accepted for disability or Social Security claims. The problem being is that the usual support staff are not working and will remain on furlough until the shutdown ends.

A decision on your benefits may be delayed until the end of the shutdown or at the very least delayed considerably. If you receive a denial of a claim you may also have to wait until the shutdown ends to appeal this decision.

Do Social Security Offices Close During a Shutdown?

This can depend on whether or not it is a full or partial government shutdown but generally speaking many local locations will close during a shutdown. At the very least they will operate on a skeleton crew so services may be limited and wait times may be excessive.

Obviously this may cause frustration but just as a general rule of humanity if you visit a Social Security office during a shutdown try to be understanding. These people will be understaffed and overworked and it’s certainly not their fault that elected officials are holding the country hostage.

If you can, sign up for a My Social Security online account and this may allow you to not need to go to a physical office.

What Stays Open During a Shutdown?

There are some government funded services that will never be closed to a shutdown

  • Emergency personnel such as active duty military, federal law enforcement agents, health care professionals in federal hospitals and air traffic controllers
  • Members of congress continue to be paid even though they may be doing nothing to fix the situation
  • The U.S. Postal Service is a government agency but it is self funding so the funding bill does not have any bearing on their operations

What Shuts Down?

  • Certain non essential military personnel involved with the National Guard and at least half of the Department of Defense civilian workforce
  • Programs and agencies funded by laws other than annual appropriations may be limited or closed during a government shutdown

How Long do Government Shutdowns Last?

Under Ronald Regan there were three government shutdowns, two of which lasted around 4 hours each. These were the shortest on record so far. Generally speaking most government shutdowns last less than a week although there have been three that exceeded this.

In 2013 resistance to President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act led to a government shutdown that lasted 16 days. It finally ended when Democrats agreed to allow stricter income verification rules in regards to health care insurance.

The second longest government shutdown occurred in 1995 – 1996 under President Bill Clinton. Republicans wanted to enact budget cuts in multiple areas including education and environmental protection. This shutdown lasted 21 days and finally ended when Democrats agreed to modest budget cuts and tax increases.

As already mentioned the longest shutdown was under Donald Trump regarding his border wall and over $5 billion in funding. He did promise to make Mexico pay for the wall but I guess they were not agreeable to that deal. After 35 days and growing security concerns a three week extension was agreed to allow the government to reopen and to draft a suitable appropriation bill.

Therefore a government shutdown can last anywhere from a few hours to several weeks. It will all depend on the demands being made and the willingness of the other side to compromise. Sadly compromise seems to be considered a dirty word in modern politics.

Conclusion

Certain aspects of Social Security are impacted during a government shutdown including basic in person services and the processing of new benefit claims. Generally speaking if you already qualify for Social Security payments you will continue to receive them with no disruption.

There will always be speculation that a government shutdown will halt your checks but usually that’s coming from the same politicians who are trying to strong arm something they want in or out of the funding bill.

The money for your Social Security checks does not come from this appropriation bill, it comes from a completely separate fund. The Social Security Administration has safeguards in place to keep your payments coming to you.

Signing up for the My Social Security online system will also allow you to get some basic services even during a government shutdown. There hasn’t been a government shutdown in over three years but you can be sure that there will be more in the future.

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