The SSA said the new office would “elevate and centralize” efforts to administer programs and policies affecting American Indians and Alaska Natives and serve as Social Security’s primary point of contact on tribal matters. The office’s priorities include strengthening consultations with tribes on regional and national policy, increasing outreach and education efforts to tribal communities and helping recruit a more diverse pool of candidates for Social Security jobs.
A 2012 Social Security Administration study, based on information from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2005-2009 American Community Survey, documented American Indian and Alaska Native use of benefits. Social Security officials say updating this data will be one of the charges of the new Office of Native American Partnerships.
The study found that among tribal members, 15.4 percent reported receiving Social Security benefits, compared to 18.9 percent of the general population. The gap was wider for people who reported having disabilities: 37.9 percent in the Native community and 52.1 percent in the general population.
About 20 percent of Native beneficiaries were living below the poverty line, nearly twice the rate for the population at large. Native people were more likely than other groups to be getting Supplemental Security Income (SSI), an SSA-administered benefit for people with low incomes and limited assets, but they received lower monthly SSI payments on average.
The new SSA office grew out of a presidential directive that federal agencies work to advance racial equity and better support underserved communities. The SSA has named Richard Litsey, a former director of the Social Security hearing office in Houston and a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, as its first director. An attorney, Litsey has also served as counsel and senior adviser on Indian affairs to the U.S. Senate Finance Committee and director of policy and advocacy for the National Indian Health Board.