En español | 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.
Applications down by about 15 percent
Nearly 1.9 million people applied for SSI in 2019, according to Social Security Administration data. In 2020, that number dropped to 1.6 million, a preliminary figure subject to change, the lowest since 1990. The total number of SSI recipients in December 2019, the most recent peak before the pandemic, was nearly 8.1 million.
But 13 months later, the rolls had 150,000 fewer people. Deaths of recipients, fewer new applicants and fewer approvals of new beneficiaries — 1 in 3 applicants eventually are approved — all were contributing factors. Before the pandemic, Social Security officials had estimated that a case normally took three to five months for a decision to be made.
SSI by the numbers
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) provides monthly cash assistance to those in need who are aged, blind or disabled. Unlike Social Security, financed by payroll taxes, SSI is a federal program that gets its money from general revenue.
• 1974: SSI becomes a federal program
• $56.4 billion: Payment total in fiscal year 2020
• 7.9 million: Recipients in February 2021
• 2.3 million: Recipients age 65 and older
• 1.1 million: Recipients who are children
• $3,000: Asset limit for couples
• $2,000: Asset limit for individuals
• $1,191: Basic benefit for couples in 2021
• $794: Basic benefit for individuals
• $585: Average benefit after deductions for living in a Medicaid facility or with someone who helps with support
Among all SSI recipients, nearly 2.3 million are 65 and older. Those younger than 65, who qualify for SSI's disability provisions, must have a physical or mental impairment expected to last at least a year or result in death.
SSI provides a guaranteed minimum income to people of very limited means who are disabled, blind or 65 or older. More than half of the SSI recipients in 2019 had no other source of income.
Sometimes an applicant can start the filing process online but will need to work directly with a Social Security representative to finish it. Online-only applications are available only to people who are disabled or blind, 18 to 64 years old, haven't applied for or received SSI benefits in the past, have never married and are applying simultaneously for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), the other benefit SSA provides to people with disabilities.
So practically speaking, few people — and none 65 and older — can file for SSI online. They must call for an appointment and wait to have their application completed in a phone call with an SSI specialist at Social Security.
"The [SSA] website has over 150 different forms,” says Kate Lang, a Washington-based senior staff attorney at Justice in Aging. The national nonprofit is a legal advocacy organization for older adults. “The SSI application is not there. It's not a self-help form.”
Houston lawyer Maria Pantoja, with the nonprofit Lone Star Legal Aid, the nation's fourth largest free legal aid provider, helps SSI applicants with disabilities.
"You can call so many times and you can't get anyone,” she says. “Unfortunately, it's like a hit or miss.”
One of her clients, Denaja Copes of Houston, says her diagnosis of sickle cell disease and seizures prompted her to apply for SSDI and SSI benefits at age 18. She was denied. Then, last year just before the pandemic, Copes, 21, initiated the process but didn't get far before coronavirus shut everything down.
Pantoja helped Copes navigate the phone application. Copes received approval for SSDI benefits in September and also was approved for SSI later.
"Sometimes it was 10 minutes on the phone or sometimes an hour,” Copes says. “It was somewhat difficult because sometimes they call you to say I had an appointment and [I] didn't know I had one."
'Dire need’ visits not always face to face
The Social Security Administration employs about 27,500 specialists in its local field offices and more than 5,000 agents at its 800-772-1213 national phone number to respond to the public, but office closures often mean constant busy signals and long waits on hold as potential recipients try to access benefits. Local office phone numbers can be found through a ZIP code search.
Seven months after the local offices shut down, officials opened up some interactions for "dire need” situations. In-person visits aren't easy to get. And some might not be the face-to-face interaction that a potential SSI recipient would hope for, says Romig.
"The manager of a field office may go in so they can show a driver's license maybe through a window,” she says. “It's up to the discretion of local management."
Because of the pandemic, the agency has made changes, including extending some deadlines, easing time limits for appeals and reaching out to recipients who might be eligible for more benefits, as well as to advocates and organizations who can help people connect with the federal agency. SSA also has launched a national communications campaign with new webpages to raise awareness of both the SSI and Social Security Disability Insurance programs and encourage people to apply, SSA spokesman Mark Hinkle says via email.
In December, SSA began a pilot program to enhance that outreach by identifying “some people receiving Social Security benefits who potentially could be eligible for additional benefits through SSI,” Hinkle says. “We are contacting these individuals to notify them of their potential eligibility and to gather more information. We established a dedicated phone number for these people only to call to screen for additional eligibility."
Sharon Jayson is a contributing writer who covers health care and aging. She previously worked for USA Today and the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman and her work also has appeared in The Washington Post, Time magazine and Kaiser Health News.