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Social Security and Covid: Why Getting Help Won’t Be the Same

One issue that has prompted criticism is the agency’s requirement that sensitive documents, such as drivers’ licenses and birth and death certificates, which are used for verifications, be sent to S.S.A. via mail. The agency has relaxed some of these requirements, and tested drop boxes placed outside the offices to collect such paperwork. But during a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing on the agency’s pandemic customer service, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and chairman of the committee, said he wasn’t satisfied with that.

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

Long before the pandemic, Social Security was trimming the number of field offices, and closed 67 around the country beginning in 2010. That move concerned consumer advocates, especially from an equity and access standpoint. While a great deal of routine Social Security business is now transacted via its website, field office staff provide in-person assistance on complex matters, in particular on applications for disability insurance and S.S.I., says Manasi Deshpande, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago.

“Especially for people with lower socioeconomic status, being able to get in-person information and assistance with the application is critical to their decision to apply,” Dr. Deshpande said. “Without it, they just don’t apply.”

She was an author of a 2019 study that found that field office closings reduced disability applications by 10 percent — and the number of new recipients by 16 percent in affected areas. The closings also disproportionately discouraged low-education and low-earning applicants from applying, the study found, because of longer wait times at offices that were still open.

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

The impact of closing all field offices during the pandemic has been far greater, Dr. Deshpande said. “You’d probably need to multiply the estimates from the paper by a few times to see the effect of closing all the offices,” she said. “The 10 percent decline we measured took place with neighboring offices absorbing some of the applicants. It’s likely a much larger effect with all the field offices closed.”

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