By Mark Miller
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Paper Social Security benefits statements, which used to be mailed out every year and then fell victim to budget cuts, are going to make a partial comeback.
Starting this September, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will resume mailings at five-year intervals to workers who have not signed up to view their statements online, an agency spokesman told Reuters. The statements will be sent to workers at ages 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60, he said, adding the agency would continue to promote use of the online statements.
The SSA stopped mailing most paper statements in 2011 in response to budget pressures, and saved the SSA $70 million annually - about 50 cents per mailed statement. But the decision has been a sore point with some critics, who argue the statement provides a valuable annual reminder to workers of what they can expect to get back from payroll taxes in the future.
The annual statement includes an estimate of monthly benefits at various claiming ages, and for disability claims. It explains how benefits are calculated, and displays the worker's history of income subject to Social Security tax.
The SSA budget is funded mainly by the same payroll tax revenue used for paying benefits but Congress, which approves the agency's budget, has approved less than the agency's request in 14 of the past 16 years. In fiscal 2012, for example, SSA operated with $11.4 billion, just 88 percent of the amount requested.
The cuts have led to sharp reductions in SSA customer service. Nationwide, staff is down to 62,000 from a peak of 70,000 in the 1990s.
So far, only 10 million American wage earners - just 6 percent of all workers - have signed up at the site. (www.1.usa.gov/1d3xvuZ). Critics note that many of the workers who will be most reliant on Social Security in retirement are least likely to have Internet access, including low-income and non-English speaking minorities.
The partial restoration of mailed statements was made possible by an improved budget outlook. The SSA's fiscal 2014 budget was boosted to $11.7 billion and President Barack Obama's fiscal 2015 budget request is $12 billion.
"It's a step in the right direction," said Nancy Altman, co-director of Strengthen Social Security, an advocacy group. "But the mailings shouldn't be limited to workers who haven't signed up (for) online accounts. Just because people have signed up, it does not mean that they revisit it to check their earnings statements."
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Editing by Lauren Young and Frances Kerry)