Social Security and Covid: Why Getting Help Won’t Be the Same

One issue that has drawn criticism is the agency’s requirement that sensitive documents, such as driver’s licenses and birth and death certificates, which are used for checks, be sent to the SSA by courier. The agency relaxed some of these requirements and tested drop boxes placed outside offices to collect these documents. But during a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing on the agency’s pandemic customer service, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and chair of the committee, said he was not happy with this.

“We cannot circulate people’s original documents in the mail or put them in a drop box and wonder when they will be returned,” he said.

Long before the pandemic, Social Security was reduce the number of field offices, and closed 67 of them across the country as of 2010. The decision affected consumer advocates, particularly from an equity and access perspective. Although much of the day-to-day business of social security is now handled through his website, field office staff provide in-person assistance on complex issues, particularly on disability insurance and SSI claims, says Manasi Deshpande, assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago.

“Especially for people of lower socioeconomic status, the ability to get in-person information and assistance with the application is critical to their decision to apply,” said Dr Deshpande. “Without it, they just don’t apply.”

She was the author of a Study 2019 which found that field office closures reduced disability claims by 10 percent – and the number of new beneficiaries by 16 percent in affected areas. The closures have also disproportionately discouraged low-educated and low-income applicants from applying, the study finds, due to longer wait times at offices that are still open.

During the 10-year period studied by Dr Deshpande, Social Security closed 118 field offices, a cost-cutting measure. She estimated that during this period, a total of 786,000 Disability Insurance and SSI applicants were discouraged from applying.

The impact of closing all field offices during the pandemic has been far greater, said Dr Deshpande. “You would probably need to multiply the paper estimates a few times to see the effect of closing all the offices,” she said. “The 10% drop we measured happened with neighboring offices absorbing some of the applicants. This is probably a much larger effect with all field offices closed.

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