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Closed Social Security Offices Hinder Applying for Supplemental Security Income

  March 26, 2021 | By Sharon Jayson, AARP

The most important piece of paper taped to the front door of the Social Security Administration (SSA) office in southwest Austin, Texas, has a phone number, a fax number and a web address.

Across the country, fax, phone and website have been the only ways that people can initiate contact with the agency since March 17, 2020, when its more than 1,200 field offices shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic. For prospective recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a federal program operated by SSA that helps older and disabled people with very low income and few financial assets, the office closures have meant difficulties in applying. The number of new recipients has declined.

In 2019 fiscal year, before the pandemic, 43 million people visited a Social Security office. And that’s how many potential SSI recipients had learned about the safety-net program, says Kathleen Romig, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities think tank.

“They don’t understand what they’re eligible for,” Romig, who used to work at the SSA, says about many people who visited Social Security offices to consult with a representative. Many parents of dependent children who qualify for SSI also don’t know about their eligibility.

Applications for SSI cannot be completed online, except in narrow circumstances. They require contact with a Social Security representative. Since the pandemic began, monthly new SSI benefit awards are down about 30 percent. Preliminary January 2021 data shows the fewest new benefit recipients since the agency began keeping monthly numbers more than 20 years ago, a record low of 37,285.

“The five lowest months of awards in the last 21 years have all occurred in the pandemic,” says economist David Weaver of Arlington, Virginia, a former longtime SSA executive. “That tells you something. It’s been since the pandemic and it’s affected all groups — the elderly, disabled adults and disabled children.”

SSA preliminary data for February, released this week, shows an uptick in new benefit awards to nearly 50,600, but that’s still lower than the numbers for the previous five Februarys. The number of new benefit awards fluctuate each month, but in the 11 full months since Social Security offices closed, all have shown a decline in people new to SSI when compared with the previous year.

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