“There’s a New Sheriff in Town” at SSA

Published in RINewsToday on June 19, 2020

On June President Joe Biden has asked two political holdovers from the President Trump’s administration, Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul and his deputy, David Black, who had previously served as the agency’s top lawyer, to resign. Saul ultimately was fired after refusing to resign Friday, July 9, while Black resigned upon the president’s request that day. 

Biden named as acting commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi, whom he earlier had appointed to a lower-level Social Security Administration (SSA) position, deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy. 

The White House affirmed its authority to “remove the SSA Commissioner at will” by citing a Supreme Court ruling and a legal opinion from the Justice Department. Previously, under statute, the president could only remove the SSA commissioner for “neglect of duty” or “malfeasance in office.”

Saul’s term as Social Security Administrator ended in 2025 and according to The Washington Post, he states he plans to dispute the White House firing and continue to work remotely at his New York City home.

“I consider myself the term-protected commissioner of Social Security,” Saul told The Washington Post, calling the attempt to unseat him a “Friday Night Massacre.”

Minority Members of Senate Aging Committee Oppose Firing

Ranking Member Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), Marco Rubio (R-Fla..), Mike Braun (R-Ind..), Rick Scott (R-Fla..), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) sent a letter July 14 to President Biden urging him to reinstate and honor the Senate confirmed, six-year term of Saul as SSA Commissioner. 

Members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging find the politically motivated action especially worrisome as it will have drastic effects on SSA services that help millions of older Americans with basic expenses like housing, food and medicine. 

The letter explains “Commissioner Saul was confirmed by the Senate in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote in 2019… led the agency through one of the most trying periods in its history during the COVID-19 pandemic… was confirmed by the Senate to serve a full six-year term that expires in 2025 and he should have remained in his position unless removed for cause, as written in federal law.

The committee requested the Biden administration explain what authority an acting commissioner—not confirmed by the Senate—would possess to carry out the statutorily obligated duties of the SSA commissioner. 

 On the Other Side of the Aisle…

“From the beginning of their tenure at the Social Security Administration Andrew Saul and David Black were anti-beneficiary and anti-employee. The Biden Administration made the right move to fire both Saul and Black after they refused to resign, says chairperson John B. Larson (D-CT), of the House Ways and Means Social Security Committee, who had called for Saul and Black’s removal in March 2021. “As [Supreme Court] Justice Alito recently stated, the president needs someone running the agency who will follow their policy agenda,” he says.

According to Larson, since June 17, 2019, Saul’s control over SSA policies have “disproportionately harmed vulnerable Americans like low-income seniors and persons with disabilities, immigrants and people of color.

During Saul’s tenure, Larson noted that the SSA implemented a new rule that denied disability benefits for older, severely disabled workers who are unable to communicate in English, resulting in approximately 100,000 people being denied more than $5 billion in benefits from 2020 to 2029. However, there has been considerable discussion of the misinterpretation of the intent of this change.

SSA also finalized a new regulation that dramatically reduced due process protections for Social Security appeals hearings, by allowing the SSA to use agency attorneys instead of independent judges for the hearings, says Larson.

Larson also expressed concern about SSA proposing to change the disability review process to cut off benefits for some eligible people and proposing to make it significantly harder for older, severely disabled workers to be found eligible for disability benefits. 

According to Larson, Saul also advanced the Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant policies by resuming “no-match letters” to employers with even minor discrepancies between their wage reports and their employees’ Social Security records. These letters effectively serve to harass immigrants and their employers, often leading to U.S. citizens and work-authorized immigrants being fired, he said.

Finally, Larson charged that Saul embraced the Trump Administration’s anti-federal employee policies, including forcing harsh union contracts that strip employees of rights and ending telework for thousands of employees just months before the COVID-19 pandemic started – a particularly ill-fated decision given the critical role telework has played in SSA’s ability to continue serving the public during the pandemic. 

Thumbs Up from Aging Advocacy Groups 

“The Social Security Commissioner should reflect the values and priorities of President Biden, which include improving benefits, extending solvency, improving customer services, reopening field offices, and treating SSA employees and their unions fairly. That was not the case with former Commissioner Saul, and we look forward to President Biden nominating someone who meets that standard,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Adds Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works: “Today is a great day for every current and future Social Security beneficiary. Andrew Saul and David Black were appointed by former President Donald Trump to undermine Social Security. They’ve done their very best to carry out that despicable mission. That includes waging a war on people with disabilities, demoralizing the agency’s workforce, and delaying President Biden’s stimulus checks.”  

Introducing New SSA Commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi…

Kilolo Kijakazi has a Ph.D. in public policy from George Washington University, an MSW from Howard University, and a BA from SUNY Binghamton University. Kijakazi’s Urban Institute bio notes that she served as an Institute Fellow at the Urban Institute, where she “worked with staff across the organization to develop collaborative partnerships with those most affected by economic and social issues, to expand and strengthen Urban’s agenda of rigorous research, to effectively communicate findings to diverse audiences and to recruit and retain a diverse research staff at all levels” while conducting research on economic security, structural racism, and the racial wealth gap. 

Kijakazi was previously employed as a program officer at the Ford Foundation, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a program analyst at the Food Nutrition Service of the Department of Agriculture, and an analyst at the National Urban League.

According to Wikipedia, before entering the Biden administration, Kijakazi was a board member of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the National Academy of Social Insurance and its Study Panel on Economic Security, the Policy Academies and Liberation in a Generation, as well as a member of the DC Equitable Recovery Advisory Group, adviser to Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap, co-chair of the National Advisory Council on Eliminating the Black-White Wealth Gap at the Center for American Progress, and member of the Commission on Retirement Security and Personal Savings at the Bipartisan Policy Center. 

“Kilolo has an amazing ability to find and build connections among individuals and institutions that should be working together on critical public policy issues and policy discussions are much better for that inclusionary approach,” says Margaret Simms, an Institute Fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population at the Urban Institute.

GAO: Report Says Older Persons Hit Hard by Student Loan Debt

Published in Pawtucket Times, September 19, 2014

By Herb Weiss

In her late 20s, Janet Lee Dupree took out a $ 3,000 student loan to help finance her undergraduate degree. While acknowledging that she did not pay off the student loan when she should have, even paying thousands of dollars on this debt, today the 72-year-old, still owes a whopping $15,000 because of compound interest and penalties. The Ocala, Florida resident, in poor health, will never pay off this student loan especially because all she can afford to pay is the $50 the federal government takes out of her Social Security check each month.

Citing Dupree’s financial problems in her golden years in his opening remarks at a Senate Panel hearing in Room 562 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL), of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, used his legislative bully pulpit to dispel the myth that student loan debt only happens to young students. “Well, as it turns out, that’s increasingly not the case,” he said.

Student Loan Debt Impacts Seniors, Too

But, last week’s Senate Aging panel hearing also put the spot light on fifty seven-year-old Rosemary Anderson, a witness who traveled from Watsonville, California, to inside Washington’s Beltway, detailing her student loan debt. Anderson remarked how she had accumulated a $126,000 loan debt (initially $64,000) to pay for her bachelor’s and master’s degree. A divorce, health problems combined with an underwater home mortgage kept her from paying anything on her student loan for eight years.

Anderson told Senate Aging panel members that with new terms to paying off her student loan debt, she expects to pay $526 a month for 24 years to settle the defaulted loan, setting her debt at age 81. The aging baby boomer will ultimately pay $87,487 more than her original student loan amount.

Like Anderson, a small but growing percentage of older Americans who are delinquent in paying off their student debts worry about their Social Security benefits garnished, drastically cutting their expected retirement income.

According to a 22 page Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, “Inability to Repay Student Loans May Affect Financial Security of a Small Percentage of Retirees,” released at the Sept. 10 Senate panel hearing, the amount that older Americans owe in outstanding federal student loans has increased six-fold, from $2.8 billion in 2005 to more than $18 billion last year. Student loan debt for all ages totals $ 1 trillion.

The GAO report noted that student loan debt reduces net worth and income, eroding the older person’s retirement security.

Nelson observed, “Large amounts of any kind of debt can put a person’s finances at risk, but I think that Ms. Dupree’s story shows that student debt has real consequences for those in or near retirement. And, the need to juggle debt on a fixed income may increase the likelihood of student loan default.”

Although the newly released GAO report acknowledged that seniors account for a small fraction of student loan debt holders, it noted that the numbers of seniors facing student loan debt between 2004 and 2010 had quadrupled to 706,000 households. Roughly 80 percent of the student loan debt held by retirement-aged Americans was for their own education, while only 20 percent of loans were taken out went to help finance a child or dependent’s education, the report said.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who sits on the Senate Special Committee on Aging, acknowledges that student loan debt is a burden for thousands of Rhode Islanders, including a growing number of retirement-age borrowers who either took out student loans as young adults, or when they changed careers, or helped pay off a child’s education. “Student debt presents unique challenges to these older borrowers, who risk garnishment of Social Security benefits, accrual of interest, and additional penalties if they are forced to default,” says Whitehouse, stressing that pursuing an education should not result in a lifetime of debt.

Whitehouse sees the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act, which would allow approximately 88,000 Rhode Islanders to refinance existing student loans at the low rates that were available in 2013-2014, as a legislative fix to help those who have defaulted on paying off their student loans. “By putting money back in the pockets of Rhode Islanders we can help individual borrowers make important long-term financial decisions that will ultimately benefit the economy as a whole,” he says.

Garnishing Social Security

The GAO reports finds that student loan debt has real consequences for those in or near retirement The need to juggle debt on a fixed income may increase the likelihood of student loan default. In 2013, the U.S. Department of the Treasury garnished the Social Security retirement and survivor benefits of 33,000 people to recoup federal student loan debt. When the government garnishes a Social Security check, multiple agencies can levy fees in addition to the amount collected for the debt, making it even more challenging for seniors to pay off their loan.

Ranking Member, Susan M. Collins (R-ME) Ranking, on the Senate Panel, warned [because of a 1998 law] seniors with defaulted student loans may even see their Social Security checks slashed to see their Social Security check to $750 a month, a floor set by Congress in 1998. “This floor was not indexed for inflation, and is now far below the poverty line, adds Collins, who says she plans to introduce legislation shortly to adjust this floor for inflation and index it going forward, to make sure garnishment does not force seniors into poverty.

According to an analysis of government data detailed on the CNNMoney website, “More than 150,000 older Americans had their Social Security checks docked last year for delinquent student loans.”

Unlike other types of consumer debt, student loans can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. Besides docking Social Security, the federal government can use a variety of ways to collect delinquent student loans, specifically docking wages or taking tax refund dollars. These strategies also cutting the income of the older person.

Some Final Thoughts…

“It’s very important that we focus on the big picture and the implications in play,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell, noting that “Education debt is becoming a significant factor for younger workers in preparing for retirement, delaying the ability of people to retire and threatening a middle-class standard of living, both before and after they retire.

Connell says, “Its serious concern for some older Americans as approximately 6.9 million carry student loan debt – some dating back to their youth. But others took on new debt when they returned to school later in life and many others have co-signed for loans with their children or grandchildren to help them deal with today’s skyrocketing college costs.”

“It’s not just a matter of Federal student loan debt being garnished from Social Security payments if it has not been repaid, “ Connell added. “Outstanding federal debt also will disqualify an older borrower from eligibility for a federally- insured reverse mortgage.

“Families need to know the costs and understand the long-term burden of having to repay large amounts of student loan debt,” Connell concluded. “They also need information regarding the value of education, hiring rates for program graduates and the likely earnings they may expect.”

Finally, Sandy Baum, senior fellow with the Urban Institute, warns people to think before they borrow. “They should borrow federal loans, not private loans, she says, recommending that if their payments are more than they can afford, they should enroll in income-based repayment.

Addressing student loan debt issues identified by the GAO report, Baum suggests that Congress might ease the restrictions on discharging student loans in bankruptcy, and end garnishment of Social Security payment for student debt. Lawmakers could also strengthen income-based repayment, making sure that they don’t give huge benefits to people with graduate student debt and relatively high incomes.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.