Congressmen Plan Steps To Extend Social Security Benefits
Washington--Several members of the U.S. House of Representatives chastised themselves last week for voting last summer to begin phasing out the $2.4 billion Social Security education-benefits program without fully considering the impact of their action.
And they chastised Social Security officials for not calling attention to that potential impact and for not notifying the high-school students who would feel the brunt of it.
Ease Burden of Benefit Cuts
Three of the House members said they hoped to rectify the situation by proposing legislation that would ease the burden of the benefit cuts.
They made the comments at joint hearings of the House subcommittees on elementary, secondary, and vocational education and postsecondary education, which were held primarily to determine why Social Security officials have failed to notify an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 high-school students that they will lose the benefits if they are not enrolled full-time in college before May 1.
The House subcommittee that oversees the Social Security Administration was also scheduled to take up the issue at a hearing last Friday.
"I don't think many members of Congress really understood what that little line in the budget reconciliation bill was going to do, yet hundreds of us, myself included, voted for it anyway," Representative Gerald B. Solomon, Republican of New York, pointed out.
Earlier this month, Mr. Solomon introduced a bill that would extend the eligibility cutoff date by 61 days, to June 30. He said that by his estimate it would cost the government approximately $125 million in additional benefit payments over the next four years if one-half of the current high-school students who could be eligible for the higher-education aid actually chose to apply for it.
"This one small step would cost the government only $25 million to $35 million in the current fiscal year," he said. "Perhaps if the economy recovers as quickly as the Reagan Administration predicts it will we might eventually restore funding for this program at its former levels. In any case, we are faced with an emergency today, and we owe it to these students to do something because of our--the government's--negligence."
Representative Harold L. Volkmer, Democrat of Missouri, said at the hearing that he plans to introduce a similar bill that would extend the eligibility date to Oct. 1. Mr. Volkmer said that the Reagan Administration's expected decision to call for massive cuts in other student finanical-aid programs makes it all the more important for students to find jobs over the summer months in order to supplement their incomes.
Representative Pat Williams, Democrat of Montana, also announced plans to introduce a bill that would ensure that the children of all persons who have paid into the Social Security system since 1965, the year the education benefit program was started, would continue to receive the aid upon admission into college.
"Since 1965, workers have paid into Social Security with the belief that postsecondary aid for their children was forthcoming," Representative Williams explained. "Now we are telling them that all bets are off, and that they will no longer receive what they paid for. The very least we can do in Congress is to keep our word to those who are now deceased and no longer have anyone to lobby for their interests."
The Congressmen sharply questioned a spokesman for the Social Security about the Agency's failure to warn high school students of the program's phase-out and the May 1 deadline.
And in one case, Representative Peter A. Peyser, Democrat of New York, accused the agency of misleading benefits recipients in Kansas City, Mo., by sending them brochures assuring them that they will receive thousands of dollars in postsecondary-education benefits during the next four years.
A representative of the Social Security Administration admitted that students in Kansas City had been given the outdated brochures and further acknowledged that the agency has done nothing to warn them of the mistake.
According to the agency's Kansas City regional office, the old brochures were still being sent out last month to students who requested information on the benefits program.
Sandy Clark, associate commissioner of the Social Security Administration, explained that officials at the Kansas City Social Security office should have destroyed the old leaflets describing the aid program and should have replaced them with an updated version.
"Through some error, the old stock of pamphlets was not destroyed and was still being distributed," Mr. Clark said.
"But none of the people who received that old mailing, and I understand that you have no clear idea how many people that might have been, ever received a subsequent mailing warning of the error, correct?" asked Representative Peyser.
"That's right," Mr. Clark responded.
"Now, don't you think that you have an obligation to warn people about the mistake that you made?" Mr. Peyser asked.
After a short pause during which he conferred with two counselors, Mr. Clark said that he would take the matter up with Social Security Commissioner John A. Svahn and come back to the committee with an answer within the week.
Earlier in the hearing, Mr. Clark defended his agency's efforts to publicize the effects of the student-benefit cuts and the agency's decision not to mail individual notices to high-school students.
In delivering the prepared testi-mony of Social Security Commissioner Svahn, he said that as early as last September the agency began distributing news releases, radio announcements, and news columns explaining the benefit changes to media organizations across the country.
Representative William R. Ratchford, Democrat of Connecticut, said, however, that in the past five months he has "not seen a single television spot, heard a single radio announcement, or seen a single newspaper account" that was a result of the agency's "media campaign."
Representative Peyser added that he has obtained copies of the Social Security press releases and said that they did not explain the effects of the program cuts fully.
"This release says nothing about a cutoff date for eligibility and gives no details about the changes," he said. "All it says is that students should contact their local Social Se-curity office. It seems to me that these releases do nothing to inform students about what the true story is."
Mr. Clark also said that "several practical considerations weighed against either sending check-stuffers or separate notices to potentially affected beneficiaries."
"A separate mailing to all beneficiaries would have taken over two months and would have cost about $7 million to accomplish, " he said.
Representative Solomon pointed out, however, that if only 100,000 current high-school students are affected by the program cuts, the Social Security estimate suggested it would cost $70 for each notice sent.
"There are a lot of people in my home district who would like to land a contract like that one," he said.
Mr. Clark said that the $7 million figure represented the cost of mailing a warning to every person in the country receiving a Social Security check. He added that the estimated cost of sending a warning to the high-school students only would total approximately $1 per letter.
"The cost of mailing those letters is really coming down fast," Representative Solomon responded.
Mr. Clark also said Treasury Department rules prevent the Social Security Administration from mailing out notices of benefit changes to select groups of individuals. During questioning, however, he admitted that the agency never asked Treasury Department officials for a special dispensation permitting them to notify the high-school students affected by the cuts.
Unless Congress acts to change the law in the next three months, students who are not registered full time in a postsecondary institution by May 1 will become ineligible for education benefits that in the past have averaged about $2,700 per student per year.