NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks to financial reporter Chabeli Carrazana of The 19th News about women whose spouses and children have died of COVID struggling to seek benefits from social security offices.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Rondell Gulick first called Social Security the day after her husband’s funeral. He had contracted COVID-19 and died earlier in the year at the age of 45, leaving behind his wife and nine children. In normal times, his widow, Rondell, would have been able to visit a Social Security office to apply for benefits. Often, everything was arranged with just one deal. But almost two years into the pandemic, social security offices are still closed to everything except emergency agreements. And so COVID widows are struggling to access the benefits they are entitled to.
Chabeli Carrazana is the financial reporter for The 19th, and she has written about these obstacles. Welcome to EVERYTHING CONSIDERED.
CHABELI CARRAZANA: Thank you very much.
SHAPIRO: Many services figured out how to do this externally, whether we’m talking about distance learning or telemedicine. How is the experience of applying for social security benefits in the event of death with these offices closed?
CARRAZANA: Well, for almost all the benefits you need to interact with social security, you need to either go personal or do it over the phone. The only thing you can apply for online is retirement.
And so in case of death benefits, it has been a big problem for people because it has been a huge barrier to get through the phone lines. If you can not go in person and you can not apply online, you are at the mercy of a phone call.
SHAPIRO: And so practically, what does that mean for the ability of a person like Rondell Gulick that you talked to to get the benefits she’s entitled to?
CARRAZANA: That means you have people on the phone for 45 minutes, an hour on standby trying to get to someone, calling again and again and again, people who have just lost family members. In some cases where this money is their livelihood, it is something they depend on to make ends meet over the next few months and they just can not get through. And so Rondell was able to finally get through to someone who told her we can not even talk to you again for two more months when you have an appointment, and that appointment will also be on the phone.
And then there’s it – what’s really happening is that you just have to be extremely, extremely persistent. And we know how people’s lives are complicated. There are some people who do not get these benefits at all because they are not able to go through all the obstacles.
SHAPIRO: And this is happening at a time when 900,000 people in the United States have died from this disease, and so the number of people applying for these benefits – there is an extraordinary need right now.
CARRAZANA: The need is enormous. And we have already seen the impact of these closures. We have seen that the number of benefits for the poverty reduction program under social security – the number of people receiving these benefits has fallen by about 27%. Social Security’s second program, which includes death benefits, includes workers with disabilities, a decrease of 7%.
So it is clear in the numbers that people are not getting access to these benefits. It’s not a question of justification, it’s access.
SHAPIRO: And this is not a result of people not having information or not having experience. You’ve talked to lawyers who deal with social security as part of their profession and run into the same problems, right?
CARRAZANA: And this is not a case where people should talk to a lawyer to resolve their case, right? This is not something that should be so complicated. And you have lawyers who are trying to work in the middle and are not capable of it.
I had – I talked to a lawyer who has been working on a case for nine months and back and forth has just been about a birth certificate. Social security says they do not have it, then they have it, then it is not the right thing, this back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back and forth. And as you mentioned above, this could be solved in a day, not months.
SHAPIRO: Who tends to be most affected by this?
CARRAZANA: Well, that depends on the kind of benefit you’re looking at, but in reality we’re generally talking about the most vulnerable groups in this country, right? Many workers with disabilities, people with disabilities, they have a really hard time accessing benefits. In particular, these applications are even more complicated. And typically, you need someone to help you with that personally.
And then of course we have the survival group. And then you have these – many of these young widows who have never interacted with social security did not expect it and now have to navigate a system that is really not built to help people right now.
SHAPIRO: It would be easy to paint Social Security as the villain here, a typical dysfunctional bureaucracy. Is that what’s going on?
CARRAZANA: No, I do not think it is. I think you have people at Social Security who are very, very dedicated to this job and have navigated what has been a really difficult situation for those with really low staffing, not much help. You know, Social Security has seen its budget drop by about 13% over the last decade when you adjust for inflation. So this is an agency like other agencies – just like the IRS is another – that has been a kind of victim of these budget cuts.
And now we are reaping the consequences of those actions, and that’s affecting the staff there. It affects their workers. And it again affects the most vulnerable people who really needed these benefits in a time like now.
SHAPIRO: If social security offices open next month as planned, there will be a huge backlog. So what happens then?
CARRAZANA: That’s the big question now, right? We know there are people who have not applied at all this year because of these obstacles that we talked about. And then the backlogs that we see on the phones, where only half of phone calls are answered, those backlogs will take place in lobbies at social security offices around the country. And what we do not know yet is the detailed plan for how social security will tackle it because we know it is coming.
SHAPIRO: Chabeli Carrazana is financial reporter for The 19th. Thank you for sharing your reporting with us.
CARRAZANA: Thank you very much.
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