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Social Security Applicants Hit Hurdles in Claiming Online, Study Says

Many start with digital form but seek help by phone or in person during process

spinner image A woman's silhouette holds a smartphone with the United States Social Security Administration logo displayed on the screen and in the background.
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A significant share of people who set out to apply for Social Security benefits online ultimately turn to an in-person or phone consultation for assistance during the process, according to a recent study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. 

In a survey of 2,600 adults ages 57 to 70, 60 percent said they had applied or intend to apply for retirement benefits online, but only 43 percent of those who started the digital form completed the process without contacting a Social Security Administration employee for help. 

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“Distrust of online tools and a preference for in-person transactions were often cited as reasons for contacting SSA in person or by phone during the claiming process,” the report says.

The findings square with SSA data showing that growth in online applications has stagnated over the past decade. They also highlight challenges the agency faces as the wave of boomer retirees increases demand for Social Security services at a time when “budget constraints and retiring staff are limiting its capacity to deliver these services.” 

Speaking Aug. 4 to an online forum of retirement and disability researchers, acting SSA Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi echoed that assessment.

“Our funding level has been relatively flat since 2018,” she said. “We’ve had to freeze hiring even though we are at the lowest level of staffing in 25 years due to the prior years of underfunding.”

“AARP has been fighting hard to ensure SSA receives the funding it needs to make long-overdue service improvements for its customers. All Americans should be able to receive timely and accurate services from SSA, regardless if they prefer to do so online, over the phone or in-person," says Tom Nicholls, government affairs director for AARP. "Unfortunately, Congress has significantly underfunded the agency for the last decade and this has led to declining services and very real consequences for older Americans and people with disabilities.”

The CRR study concluded that “investing in web-based tools that people can use to serve themselves could help SSA meet the projected increases in demand, even with fewer staff.”

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Favoring a face-to-face

Retirement benefits, like spousal benefits and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), can be claimed online, in person at a local SSA office, or by calling Social Security’s national phone line, 800-772-1213. (Applications for survivor benefits must be filed by phone or in person.)

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The SSA launched the online option in 2000. Digital claims for retirement benefits grew steadily until the early 2010s, reaching half of all applications by 2013, but have hovered around that mark since. 

According to the survey, which was funded by a grant from the SSA, the biggest obstacle to boosting those numbers is awareness. More than 1 in 8 respondents said they did not apply for benefits online because they didn’t know they could. 

Next came a preference for in-person interaction (1 in 10 respondents), followed by concerns about sharing personal information online (1 in 12). Other respondents said they contacted the SSA after starting online with questions about their potential benefits, including “more complex inquiries regarding things like spousal benefits or the tax implications of receiving SS income.” 

Many applicants “really want to talk to someone to make sure they’re doing it correctly,” says Jean-Pierre Aubry, associate director of state and local research at CRR and a coauthor of the study. “It feels like a complicated decision.”

A claimant’s personal circumstances can also play a part. 

“There is a population that has complicated situations — remarriagesdivorces, stepchildren, all kinds of things,” Aubry says. Those “changes of life” can affect benefit eligibility and amounts for retirees and their families and might “require someone to sit down with you and really kind of go through your situation.”

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The study also found that older African American and Hispanic adults are significantly less likely than whites to apply using only online tools. Aubry says this study didn’t delve into the disparity but a follow-up survey will break down people’s reasons for not claiming online, or for seeking direct aid during the process, by race, ethnicity and whether they live in urban or rural areas. 

From TurboTax to benefit claim

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The survey found that people living in metropolitan areas are more likely to file for benefits fully online, without direct SSA help, as are married and college-educated claimants.

But the characteristic most associated with claiming solely online is familiarity with digital financial services such as online banking and TurboTax, “which are proxies for a high level of comfort with online financial tools,” the study says. 

The researchers predict a slight uptick in online applications as younger boomers more comfortable with such services reach claiming age. A much bigger boost is possible — up to 20 percentage points over the next 10 years — if the SSA can better publicize the online option and “help more retirees find answers to their basic inquiries online,” the report says. 

“[People] say they find it confusing, or maybe that they don’t feel confident enough in what’s presented online. They’re clearly calling for more information,” Aubry says. “The SSA needs to find a way to make this accessible and credible to individuals.”

But he adds that there is probably an upper limit to how much of the older population will go the online route.

“It’s a significant enough financial decision that there is going to be a portion of the population who want to look someone in the face,” he says. “They want to ask all the questions that they want to ask until they’re fully confident that they’re getting what they think they deserve."

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