In COVID’s early months, applications to two of Social Security’s assistance programs fell sharply.
The decline was nearly 30 percent in the spring and summer of 2020 for the monthly cash payments from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program to the families of children with disabilities. And applications for disability insurance benefits by adults with disabilities who could no longer work fell by more than 7 percent.
Two recent studies reached a similar conclusion about what went on. A major reason for fewer applications was Social Security’s decision to close its field offices during COVID in March 2020, which eliminated the ability to apply in person for the benefits.
Specifically, Mathematica researchers found, applications to the SSI and disability insurance programs declined more in counties that were closer to a field office, according to two studies funded by the Social Security Administration.
“This burden [of closed offices] was disproportionately felt in places where it had previously been easier to visit a nearby field office,” the researchers concluded.
They also uncovered other reasons unique to COVID. Historically, applications rise when unemployment increases. But the opposite occurred as the jobless rate spiked to 14.7 percent. It may be that applications fell because some potential SSI applicants thought, inaccurately, that the additional $600 in weekly unemployment benefits would disqualify them. Or they may not have felt as pressing a need for SSI’s cash payments because they had received the extra jobless benefits or COVID relief checks.
The pandemic also broke down many social networks, which limited interpersonal interactions, further contributing to declines in SSI applications. For example, places where many children previously participated in the program saw larger declines in applications than other areas. These areas likely had stronger social networks prior to COVID, and the various disruptions, through things like school closures and stay-at-home orders, meant a loss of the preexisting connections that might’ve encouraged or helped a family to apply.
But the clearest impact of COVID was closing local Social Security offices – more than 1,200 nationwide. While it was still possible to start the process online, the closings cut off an option available to applicants who lack Internet access or aren’t comfortable using computers.
The pandemic’s impact on disability applications was less dramatic. But the closures played a role there too, the second study found. Counties that either had a Social Security office or were closer to a field office saw larger declines.
An individual county’s distance from a local office was also tied to the awarding of SSI and disability benefits, with the declines in awards being smaller in counties farther away from an office. However, the researchers noted that since it takes time for Social Security to decide whether to award benefits, the analysis could be repeated when the data are more complete.
“The effects of the pandemic on disability are still unfolding,” the researchers said.
To read these studies, see “County-level Drivers of Disability Benefit Claims in Times of COVID-19” by R. Vincent Pohl and David Mann; and see “Does the Drop in Child SSI Applications and Awards during COVID Vary by Locality?” by Michael Levere, Jeffrey Hemmeter, and David Wittenburg.
The research studies reported herein were derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium. The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.