One issue that has given rise to criticism is the agency’s requirement that sensitive documents, such as driving licenses and birth and death certificates, which are used for verifications, be sent to SSA by post. The agency has relaxed some of these requirements and tested drop-boxes located outside the offices to collect such papers. But during a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing on the agency’s pandemic customer service, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and chairman of the committee, said he was not happy about it.
“We can not get people’s original documents to fly around with the mail or put them in a filing box and wonder when they will be returned,” he said.
Long before the pandemic was Social Security trimming the number of field offices, and closed 67 around the country beginning in 2010. This move concerned consumer advocates, especially from an equality and access point of view. While a lot of routine social security business is now carried out via its websitefield office staff provide personal assistance on complex cases, particularly on disability insurance applications and SSI, says Manasi Deshpande, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago.
“Especially for people with lower socio-economic status, it is crucial for their decision to apply to be able to get personal information and help with the application,” said Dr. Deshpande. “Without it, they just do not apply.”
She was the author of one 2019 survey found that field office closures reduced disability applications by 10 percent – and the number of new recipients by 16 percent in affected areas. The closures also discouraged disproportionately low-skilled and low-paid applicants from applying, the study found, due to longer waiting times in offices that were still open.
During the 10-year period, Dr. Deshpande studied, Social Security closed 118 field offices, a cost-saving move. She estimated that during that period, a total of 786,000 applicants for disability insurance and SSI were discouraged from applying.
The impact of closing all field offices during the pandemic has been far greater, said Dr. Deshpande. “You probably have to multiply the estimates from the newspaper by a few times to see the effect of closing all offices,” she said. “The 10 percent decline we measured took place with neighboring offices absorbing some of the applicants. It’s probably a much bigger effect with all the field offices closed.”