The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program is one of the largest means-tested programs in the country. It provides modest payments to 8 million low-income seniors, disabled adults, and families with disabled children. Although the cash payments are important, totaling $55 billion in 2018, the program is also the gateway to Medicaid, which helps these families receive needed health care.
During economic downturns, such as the one the country is currently experiencing, policymakers typically expect more people to turn to means-tested programs for support. The experience with the SSI program since the COVID-19 pandemic began has been just the opposite, however: The number of individuals awarded benefits by the Social Security Administration (SSA) has plummeted. This is because of continuing problems in administering the program by SSA.
As I noted in The Hill last month, the elderly were the first group to experience problems. Data just released by SSA suggest the problems continue for the elderly — and have now begun to affect people with disabilities.
In May, June, and July of this year, SSA awarded 5,038, 4,572, and 5,122 elderly individuals SSI benefits, respectively. The June award figure is the smallest number of monthly awards for the elderly in the last 20 years. The May and July figures are the second and third smallest in the last 20 years. Further, the total number of awards in these three months is 42 percent lower than the number of awards to the elderly for the comparable 3-month period in 2019.
Problems have now materialized for the disabled groups as well. In July of this year, SSA awarded SSI benefits to 25,200 disabled adults ages 18 to 64. That is the lowest monthly award figure in the last 20 years for this group. It is also 40 percent lower than the figure for this group for July of 2019.
With regard to disabled children, the same pattern emerges. SSA awarded 8,411 children SSI benefits in July of this year. That is the lowest number of awards for any month in the last 20 years for this group. It is also 43 percent lower than the award figure for this group for July of 2019.
The seriousness of the problem can be understood when the cumulative effects of declining awards is considered. In a typical year, more than 720,000 elderly and disabled people are awarded SSI benefits. Declines in awards on the order of 40 percent or more will, over time, lead to hundreds of thousands of elderly and disabled individuals missing out on vital cash and health benefits.
The problems besetting the SSI program are occurring because effective outreach has not been put into place to deal with the closure of SSA’s 1,200 field offices due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In normal times, the public learns about the SSI program when they are in these offices (often inquiring about Social Security benefits).
SSA has indicated, in light of the field office disruption, that it has reached out to community organizations to provide “contact information” for SSA, but that outreach has no evidence-base behind it and is clearly not working in the case of SSI.
SSA does have an evidence-base behind one type of outreach — notices directly mailed to potentially eligible individuals. In the SSI Elderly Notice Pilot, SSA, in conjunction with the government’s Office of Evaluation Sciences, used a gold standard, random-assignment demonstration to test whether notices sent to low benefit Social Security beneficiaries about the SSI program increased applications and awards for SSI. The results of the pilot? The notices worked.
SSA can nationalize that pilot for the elderly and, also, extend it to disabled individuals to mitigate the effects of field office closures.
The agency also needs to think through assisting people with the application process. Unlike with other types of benefits that SSA manages, the agency has not built an Internet application for child or elderly SSI benefits, and only some disabled adults can apply online for SSI.
With the field office closures, this means SSI applicants have only one service option: Call the agency’s general toll-free number and face long telephone wait times.
Mailed notices that direct potential SSI applicants to a separate agency phone number, with a centralized SSI intake unit, would be another practical step SSA could take to help the public while field offices are closed.
SSA has the authority to take steps on its own to improve the administration of the SSI program, but Congress has a fundamental obligation to provide energetic oversight of federal agencies to ensure citizens receive the services they need and are due under the law. Some concrete action on the part of Congress to engage SSA on this issue — through legislation or oversight — could make a big difference in the lives of many of the most vulnerable citizens in the country.
David A. Weaver, Ph.D., is an economist and retired federal employee who has authored a number of studies on the Social Security program. The views in this article do not reflect the views of any federal agency.