Social Security and Covid: Why getting help won’t be the same – Community News
Social Security

Social Security and Covid: Why getting help won’t be the same

One point that has drawn criticism is the agency’s requirement that sensitive documents, such as driver’s licenses and birth and death certificates, used for verifications, be mailed to SSA. The agency has relaxed some of these requirements and has tested drop boxes placed outside the offices to collect such paperwork. But at a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing on the agency’s pandemic customer service, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and committee chair, said he wasn’t satisfied with that.

“We can’t have people’s original documents flying around in the mail or putting them in a drop box and wondering when they will be returned,” he said.

Long before the pandemic, Social Security reduced the number of field offices, closing 67 nationwide as of 2010. That move worried consumer advocates, especially from a fairness and access standpoint. While many routine Social Security matters are now handled through the website, field office workers provide personal assistance with complex cases, especially with disability insurance and SSI applications, says Manasi Deshpande, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago.

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

She authored a 2019 study that found that closing field offices reduced the number of applications for the disabled by 10 percent — and the number of new recipients by 16 percent in affected areas. The closures also disproportionately discouraged low-skilled and low-paid candidates from applying, the study found, due to longer wait times at offices that were still open.

In the 10-year period that Dr. Deshpande studied, Social Security closed 118 field offices, a cost-cutting move. She estimated that a total of 786,000 applicants for disability insurance and SSI were discouraged from applying during that period.

The impact of closing all field offices during the pandemic has been much greater, said Dr. Deshpande. “You’d probably have to multiply the newspaper estimates a few times to see the effect of closing all the offices,” she said. “The 10 percent drop we measured happened with adjacent offices absorbing some of the applicants. It’s probably a much bigger effect with all field offices closed.”