What Is the Social Security Administration (SSA)?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) is a U.S. government agency that administers social programs covering disability, retirement, and survivors' benefits. It was created in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Previously operating under the Department of Health and Human Services, the SSA has operated as a wholly independent agency since 1994.

Key Takeaways

  • The Social Security Administration (SSA) is the organization that oversees and runs the Social Security program in the United States.
  • Benefits that the SSA administers include Social Security retirement income and disability income programs, among others.
  • The SSA is also responsible for issuing Social Security numbers, administering benefits, and managing the program’s finances and trust fund. Every year it issues a financial report.

Understanding the Social Security Administration

Social Security is a vital part of the retirement income planning strategy of many Americans, particularly as savings rates remain low (13.6% in December 2020, though that is up by 6.4% since December 2019, before the economic crisis and lockdown began). However, the breadth of services the SSA provides spans many vital areas of the U.S. social safety net. In January 2021, for example, nearly 70 million Americans, including retired workers, disabled workers, and survivors, received more than $1 trillion in Social Security benefits, according to the SSA.

The benefits are funded with payroll taxes of employers, employees, and the self-employed. The SSA administers the Social Security program, arguably one of the most successful agencies in the history of the U.S. government. The annual net cost of Social Security comes in at approximately $400 billion as of 2021, which is roughly 12.2% of all government spending, according to USASpending.gov.

On Friday, July 9, President Biden fired Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul and appointed the current deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy, Kilolo Kijakazi, as acting commissioner. Saul has been criticized for efforts to reduce access to disability benefits, delay providing information needed to issue stimulus payments, terminate the agency’s telework policy and clash with employee unions over safety planning during the crisis. The Social Security Administration is an independent agency and Saul was appointed until Jan. 2025. But two Supreme Court rulings, one on June 29, 2020, determining that President Trump was free to fire the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—and a second on June 23, 2021, authorizing President Biden to remove the chief of the Federal Housing Agency—have given presidents this authority. Biden also cited a July 8 Justice Dept. memo. Saul and Congressional Republicans vowed to fight this action.

Unlike the majority of U.S. federal government agencies, the SSA is not headquartered in Washington, D.C. Instead, the agency is based in the city of Woodlawn, Maryland, which is a suburb of Baltimore. In all, the Social Security Administration has 10 regional offices, six processing centers, and approximately 1,230 field offices in cities across the country. It employs over 60,000 workers and frequently ranks well in government job ratings.

Social Security Administration Services

The SSA has seen numerous name changes and operational revisions during the course of its existence as different administrations have shaped the agency. The SSA provides a wide range of services, including determining citizen eligibility and premium payments for the Medicare program. It administers the granting of Social Security numbers (SSNs), which have become a de facto national identification number that must be provided to access numerous services, such as credit, insurance coverage, and even hunting licenses.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all local Social Security offices are closed for walk-in service, though in-person appointments can be scheduled by phone in advance for some situations.

Social Security Administration: Annual Report

Every year the boards of trustees of Social Security and Medicare issue a report on the current and projected financial status of the two programs. Per the 2020 report, Social Security’s program costs will exceed its income in 2021, at which point the program will have to start dipping into its nearly $3 trillion trust fund. The Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) Trust Fund is projected to be depleted by 2034; the Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund is projected for depletion by 2065. Combined OASDI depletion would occur in 2035.

The report recommends that “lawmakers address the projected trust fund shortfalls in a timely way in order to phase in necessary changes gradually and give workers and beneficiaries time to adjust to them” and predicts that “with informed discussion, creative thinking, and timely legislative action, Social Security can continue to protect future generations.”