WASHINGTON -- Those yearly statements that Social Security mails out -- here's what you'd get if you retired at 62, at 66, at 70 -- will soon stop arriving in workers' mailboxes. It's an effort to save money and steer more people to the agency's website.
The government will provide the statements online by the end of the year, if it can resolve security issues, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue said. If that fails, the agency will resume the paper statements, which cost $70 million a year to mail, he said.
"We'll provide it, we expect, one way or another, before the end of the calendar year," Astrue said. "We're just right now trying to figure out the most cost-effective and convenient way to provide that to the American public."
The statements, mailed to 150 million people each year, project future benefit payments, helping workers plan for retirement.
The decision to suspend the mailings was unrelated to the talk of a possible partial government shutdown. It was, however, related to the agency's operating budget, which has essentially been frozen at 2010 levels -- minus about $350 million in economic stimulus money the agency had been using to handle claims.
Advocates for older Americans say they are sympathetic about the agency's budget problems, but several said an online option is insufficient, especially for people who may not have computer skills or access to computers.
"As far as the information being available online, that's not going to help a lot of people we work with," said Max Richtman, executive vice president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
"This was a concrete piece of paper, a document that workers would receive that would give them confidence in the program," Richtman said. "Otherwise, they hear a lot of the debate in Washington. It's going to be there; it's not going to be there."
Claims for retirement and disability benefits are up significantly since the nation's economy soured in 2008. About 2.7 million people applied for retirement benefits last year, a 17 percent increase from 2008, according to agency statistics. About 3.2 million people applied for disability benefits last year, a 23 percent increase.
Since the 1980s, Social Security statements have been mailed each year to workers older than 25. They include a history of taxable earnings for each year -- so people can check for mistakes -- as well as the total amount of Social Security and Medicare taxes paid over the lifetime of the worker.
The statements provide estimates of monthly benefits, based on current earnings and when a worker plans to retire. Workers can claim early retirement benefits starting at age 62. Full benefits are available at age 66, a threshold that is gradually increasing to 67 for people born in 1960 or later.
The statements are mailed throughout the year, so many people have already received them this year. Tens of millions have not.
The agency does offer a benefits estimator on its website that Astrue said can be even more helpful than the annual Social Security statements. Workers can enter their Social Security numbers on the website and get estimates of future benefits, depending on when they plan to retire.
"You can go online and you can get a very accurate estimate of your likely retirement benefits," Astrue said. "You can run scenarios."
The website, however, does not provide the detailed earnings and payroll tax history that workers had been receiving in the mail each year.
Mary Johnson, a policy analyst at The Senior Citizens League, said the detailed paper statements help workers ensure they are getting credit for their proper earnings each year.
"When we get these we realize just how modest our benefit will be, and the need for savings, and to work as long as we are able to," Johnson said in an email.
Ending the statements is part of a trend in government to conduct more of its business electronically. Social Security already mails out few paper checks. About 88 percent of beneficiaries have their payments deposited directly into bank accounts.
Social Security has been beefing up its website in recent years, offering more services and information online as millions of computer-savvy baby boomers reach retirement age. The agency launched a new public campaign this week featuring two celebrities that baby boomers will find familiar: actors Patty Duke and George Takei.
Takei starred in the original "Star Trek" TV show, and the campaign features ads playing on a "Star Trek" theme, with Duke and Takei emphasizing how easy it is to apply for benefits online.
About 41 percent of applications for retirement benefits come in online, Astrue said. About 44 percent of Medicare applications are done online. In all, the agency's website attracts about 11 million visitors each month.
Social Security: www.ssa.gov
Benefits estimator: http://www.ssa.gov/estimator/