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Half a million poor and disabled Americans left behind by Social Security

The Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) 1,200 field offices have been closed for the last 20 months, with devastating effects for disabled Americans. Pre-pandemic, more than 43 million Americans were served at SSA field offices; the people most in need of walk-in, on-demand services included people with low- or zero-incomes, housing instability, limited English proficiency, or significant physical or mental disabilities that were themselves barriers to access. With office closures, their inability to file applications and appeals and to correct bureaucratic errors has led to historically unprecedented declines in people receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits.

In fiscal year (FY) 2021, SSA’s awards of SSDI benefits to disabled persons and their family members were down 25 percent relative to FY 2019. SSI disability awards, granted to people without much work history, were down even more, with a 30 percent decline.

Had SSI awards continued at the pre-pandemic level, there would have been 280,000 more SSI awards over the last two fiscal years. In the pre-pandemic years of FY 2017-2019, SSDI awards were declining only modestly; had that trend continued, there would have been 270,000 more SSDI awards in the last two fiscal years.

Even accounting for the fact that some SSI recipients also receive SSDI, these numbers suggest that the operational difficulties facing SSA since the pandemic began have resulted in about 500,000 fewer Americans being awarded disability benefits.

SSA admits that this awards decline is a major problem, and its own internal analysis shows the startling effects of field office closures. Only one month after field offices were closed in March 2020, applications for SSI from retirement-age adults, disabled adults, and parents of disabled children were down, respectively, by 55 percent, 32 percent, and 51 percent relative to prior year numbers.

The decline in awards has continued to the present period. SSDI and SSI awards for September 2021 were down 34 and 42 percent, respectively, from the figures for September 2019.

SSI and SSDI recipients are an economically vulnerable and racially diverse group. That 500,000 disabled Americans have been left behind is shocking and should prompt a serious discussion about affirmative, remedial actions by the agency that would also comport with President Biden’s Executive Order on “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.”

SSA, with input from the White House, is finalizing plans for a partial re-opening of its field offices in January. The reopening plan will mix teleworking and in-office staffing. This is a critical step, but simply opening office doors will be woefully inadequate without a panoply of other measures.

As part of its planned re-openings, SSA should prioritize resources to areas with the largest declines in SSI applications and awards and to field offices servicing the largest low-income population areas. Hours could be extended into the late afternoons and evenings on weekdays and into Saturdays (like the U.S. Post Office). 

It is crucial that office reopening allow for walk-in service. Many current or potential SSI beneficiaries lack reliable access to internet or have limited minutes available for their phones. This is especially the case for older beneficiaries. They will face barriers to accessing an appointment-only service system, and so walk-in, same-day service must be provided to assist these beneficiaries.

To prevent a crush of frustrated applicants, SSA also needs a major retooling of its applications processes, which currently include a 23-page SSI application that can be incomprehensible even for social service professionals. It should also address the long-standing absence of an online application for all SSI applicants. SSA also has very limited criteria for streamlined eligibility determinations for people who clearly have significant disabilities. These “presumptive” disability rules should be expanded, for example, to provide allowances to people who are unhoused and who have significant behavioral health diagnoses.

SSA must also take steps to mitigate the harms people have experienced due to prolonged office closures. SSI recipients have struggled to get through to SSA to report resource and income changes. Months of stopped work due to the pandemic and failure to apply income and resource exemptions led to great numbers of no-fault overpayments. A streamlined no-fault overpayment waiver was created, but people were never informed it existed. SSA’s resultant debt collection actions for SSI beneficiaries who were not at fault — and who have no ability to make payments — are an unwarranted punishment. These punitive debt collection policies — enacted during the Trump administration — are the subject of national class action litigationCampos v. Kijakazi. That case should be settled, with overpayments and recoupments ceased.

SSA has other tools at its disposal to reverse the harms of the pandemic. Equitable and remedial measures could also include:

  • Maintaining expansive good cause for missed deadlines and hearing dismissals — and publicizing good cause clearly through multiple channels.
  • Issuing guidance that disability reviewers should not penalize applicants for lack of treatment or school records since the pandemic began.
  • Dedicating funding to third-party assistance (“navigators”) to assist those applying for SSI through the red tape minefields and appeal processes.
  • Shifting resources from lower priority areas like disability case reviews of existing recipients, to expand essential services for applicants and do more outreach.

Last, but certainly not least: It is 11 months into the current administration, and there has yet to be a nomination of a Social Security Commissioner. Many of the needed changes in policy and personnel at SSA can only be made by a Senate-confirmed commissioner, and time is running out to act before the next election.

SSA, and the federal government as a whole, need to acknowledge that SSA has been in an unprecedented crisis that has denied hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities essential income support – as well as the access to health insurance that accompanies SSI and SSDI benefits.

Business as usual, even resumed after nearly two years, will not be enough to undo these harms.

SSA’s overarching priority must be to ensure that everyone who is eligible receives SSI and SSDI right away —including the 500,000 left behind during the pandemic.

Jonathan Stein was General Counsel at Community Legal Services, Philadelphia, where he is now Of Counsel.

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.

Tags coronavirus pandemic Disability Disability benefits Federal assistance in the United States Joe Biden Social Security Administration Social Security Disability Insurance Social security in the United States Supplemental Security Income

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