At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Social Security Administration (SSA) closed all 1,200 of its field offices to in-person appointments, as well as suspended numerous other services. One distressing result is that the number of new Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients hit its lowest level on record in January. It's the latest sign of the pandemic's ongoing and disproportionate impact on low-income people with disabilities.
“Research shows that, when the Social Security Administration closes a single field office, disability applications from those who live nearby decrease,” Stacy Braverman Cloyd, director of policy and administrative advocacy at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives, told In These Times. “Now, we are seeing the effect of closing every field office in the country, plus closing many libraries and social service organizations where people might access the internet or get help applying for benefits.”
Since SSA's offices were shuttered in late March 2020, the number of people being awarded SSI benefits has decreased nearly 30 percent. In January 2021, the number of new SSI recipients totaled just 37,692 people nationally, down from 48,444 the previous January.
As detailed by National Public Radio (NPR), SSI applicants have faced daunting challenges during the pandemic. While people applying for Social Security retirement benefits can do so entirely online, SSI applicants need to submit medical paperwork and almost always must be interviewed over the telephone. Accordingly, there has been little drop-off in retirement benefit approvals since the pandemic, unlike with SSI. In parts of the country where caseworkers are unable to provide assistance, SSI applicants face even greater challenges navigating the application process.
SSA data shows that non-English speakers and people over age 65 applying for SSI have been the most hurt by the closure of Social Security field offices.
Even before the pandemic, the SSI program was assisting far fewer people than were entitled to program benefits. A 2015 study found that only half of people who may be eligible for SSI nationwide are enrolled.
In a statement to NPR, SSA spokesperson Mark Hinkle acknowledged the problem stemming from the closed offices.
“We know vulnerable populations, especially the SSI population, rely on in-person service. We stepped up our outreach with advocates and third-party organizations to get their perspective about how things are going and to ask them for ideas on how we could improve our service during the pandemic,” Hinkle said, adding that the SSA is training caseworkers to assist with applications and is in the process of producing radio, TV and social media ads to raise awareness of the program.
Click here to view SSA's coronavirus disease page.