The Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) 1,200 field offices have been closed for the last 20 months, with devastating effects for disabled Americans. Pre-pandemic, more than 43 million Americans were served at SSA field offices; the people most in need of walk-in, on-demand services included people with low- or zero-incomes, housing instability, limited English proficiency, or significant physical or mental disabilities that were themselves barriers to access. With office closures, their inability to file applications and appeals and to correct bureaucratic errors has led to historically unprecedented declines in people receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits.
In fiscal year (FY) 2021, SSA’s awards of SSDI benefits to disabled persons and their family members were down 25 percent relative to FY 2019. SSI disability awards, granted to people without much work history, were down even more, with a 30 percent decline.
Had SSI awards continued at the pre-pandemic level, there would have been 280,000 more SSI awards over the last two fiscal years. In the pre-pandemic years of FY 2017-2019, SSDI awards were declining only modestly; had that trend continued, there would have been 270,000 more SSDI awards in the last two fiscal years.
Even accounting for the fact that some SSI recipients also receive SSDI, these numbers suggest that the operational difficulties facing SSA since the pandemic began have resulted in about 500,000 fewer Americans being awarded disability benefits.
SSA admits that this awards decline is a major problem, and its own internal analysis shows the startling effects of field office closures. Only one month after field offices were closed in March 2020, applications for SSI from retirement-age adults, disabled adults, and parents of disabled children were down, respectively, by 55 percent, 32 percent, and 51 percent relative to prior year numbers.
The decline in awards has continued to the present period. SSDI and SSI awards for September 2021 were down 34 and 42 percent, respectively, from the figures for September 2019.
SSI and SSDI recipients are an economically vulnerable and racially diverse group. That 500,000 disabled Americans have been left behind is shocking and should prompt a serious discussion about affirmative, remedial actions by the agency that would also comport with President Biden’s Executive Order on “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.”
SSA, with input from the White House, is finalizing plans for a partial re-opening of its field offices in January. The reopening plan will mix teleworking and in-office staffing. This is a critical step, but simply opening office doors will be woefully inadequate without a panoply of other measures.
By: Devon Brady of Premier Disability Services, LLC®