SSA Commissioners

Kenneth S. Apfel

This summary of Mr. Apfel's tenure was produced by the Commissioner's Office in January 2001

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The Social Security Administration Under
Commissioner Kenneth S. Apfel 1997-2001

The Social Security Administration (SSA) administers one of the largest and most complex Federal government programs.  With more than 1,500 offices nationwide, SSA provides social insurance coverage to more than 153 million workers and their families.  The program pays retirement benefits to more than 30 million Americans, disability benefits to about 6.5 million disabled workers and their families, and survivors benefits to more than 7 million family members of deceased workers.  SSA also administers the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, which provides benefits to about 6.4 million people who are aged, blind or disabled and who have little or no resources.  In 1999, the Social Security and SSI programs paid a total of more than $428 billion in benefits to the American people.

Since SSA became an independent Federal agency in 1995, the challenges and responsibilities of the agency have grown dramatically. For more than 40 years previously, the Agency had been part of the Department of Health and Human Services, or its predecessor, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.  But Congress established SSA as an independent agency in order to strengthen the public’s confidence in Social Security by giving it more visibility and accountability, and to make agency  operations more efficient, so that it could better serve the American people.

In 1997, Kenneth S. Apfel became the first confirmed Commissioner of the independent Social Security Administration.  He saw that the agency needed to move quickly forward along several fronts to achieve the goals of its new independent agency status.  First among these was working to ensure the long-term solvency for the program.  This agency goal soon became an Administration priority because in January 1998, President Clinton called for a national dialogue on  “Saving Social Security First.”  Commissioner Apfel defined the agency’s role in this dialogue as largely educational, and nonpartisan.  He believed that the public needed an honest broker of information, and said that  “the American public looks to our agency for a base of factual information about the program and about the issues.”

Commissioner Apfel recognized that the effectiveness of the debate about the program’s long-range future by policymakers was also dependent upon reliable, factual information about how retirees live—including economic, social, health and geographic patterns.   He therefore moved to strengthen the agency’s internal policy analysis and research capabilities.  He created two new components devoted to policy analysis, the Office of Retirement Policy and the Office of Disability and Income Assistance Policy.   And he created a consortium of university and other non-government researchers to provide input on a wide range of retirement income issues.

An equally important goal of an independent SSA was to maintain and enhance world-class service delivery to the American public.  And as with other government departments and agencies, the underlying issue has been one of resources.  Commissioner Apfel has worked to make the wisest use of agency’s resources, while continuing to press for additional resources.  Specifically, the Commissioner’s budgets, required by law, requested levels of funding that would allow for a moderate increase in staffing to handle increased workloads, improve service, and intensify efforts to prepare for the agency’s own anticipated retirement wave.

However, the Commissioner also recognized that systemic changes in agency policies and procedures would be needed to meet the demands of the new century.  And in 2000, the agency published a 2010 Vision, a strategic planning document that sets a course for the agency to meet anticipated challenges in the 2001-2010 period.  This 2010 Vision emphasizes the need for 1) greater reliance on technology—especially the Internet, 2) redesigned and more efficient business processes,  3) improved training opportunities for employees, and 4) closer alignment of policy, budgetary, human resources and technological initiatives in moving toward our common service delivery goals.

These larger themes were the backdrop for other program and administrative initiatives that were undertaken during Commissioner Apfel’s tenure.