(WASHINGTON) – On Friday January 28, officers of the National Social Security Council, which represents workers of the Social Security Administration (SSA), testified before the Democratic Senate Policy Committee regarding reports in the media that employees have been instructed to hype negative projections for Social Security and to promote privatizing Social Security.
Union testimony exposed ways in which SSA employees were instructed to promote the idea that Social Security is in a crisis and that private investment accounts are the solution to this financial situation. The testimony suggests that SSA may have violated federal law prohibiting agencies from using funds for propaganda purposes unless those funds are specifically designated for such use by act of Congress. Additionally, the testimony refuted recent White House assertions and a statement that SSA employees are now required to read, on behalf of Social Security Commissioner Jo Anne B. Barnhart, in the event that they are questioned about the recent media reports.
"Previously, our employees had shared information with the public about Social Security's financial condition, but had never been encouraged to support any particular 'reform' proposal. In fact, they were always expected to remain neutral on political and legislative matters," testified Steve Kofahl, regional vice president of the Council and president of AFGE Local 3937.
"Over the years, through Republican Administrations and Democratic Administrations, there was one constant: the work of the Social Security Administration should not be politicized," testified Debbie Fredericksen, Council executive vice president, now, "frontline Agency employees are being instructed to provide the American public with information that is designed to promote the idea that Social Security is in crisis and that Social Security privatization is the answer."
"The use of SSA resources to advocate political positions is wrong and compromises the integrity and credibility of the Social Security Administration. The credibility problem becomes even more acute, when SSA employees are directed to make political statements that are untrue or exaggerated. This undermines the SSA mission to provide clear, accurate, and objective information to the American people about the Social Security system," testified Fredericksen.
Kofahl cited the effectiveness of the Agency campaign by describing a conversation with a taxi driver. Upon learning that Kofahl was an employee of SSA, the driver asserted that "it [Social Security] won't be there for me." When pressed as to why he felt that way, the driver explained that the "'Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement" he received in the mail from SSA told him so.
Documentation and evidence presented by the Council included:
• Official agency talking points stating, "Modernization must include individually controlled, voluntary personal retirement accounts to augment Social Security." (emphasis added by AFGE)
• An SSA Tactical Plan instructing employees to "deliver message through press releases, presentations at financial planning seminars and public events" and to "look for non-traditional locations…such as outreach events at farmer's markets, big box retail stores, etc."
• A 2-hour lecture by a SSA public affairs specialist given to insurance and financial planning professionals. The lecture covered the July 2001 report from the Social Security Advisory Board and 3 options proposed by the White House Commission to Strengthen and Preserve Social Security.
In response to calls to the SSA TeleService Centers (1-800 phone centers) commenting about the use of trust fund dollars to promote privatizing Social Security, employees have been instructed to read the following statement on behalf of SSA Commissioner Jo Anne B. Barnhart:
Thank you for your call. There has been a lot of misinformation in the media lately and I am glad to have this opportunity to set the record straight. I have never, nor will I ever, ask or direct Social Security employees to promote or advance any specific proposal for Social Security reform. Our job at Social Security is to provide services and benefits and to educate the American public about the programs and finances of Social Security. Again, thank you for your call. We look forward to continuing to serve you.