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SSI awards for the disabled lowest in 20 years — needs congressional attention

  August 26, 2020 | By David A. Weaver, The Hill

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).

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