Customer Service or Enrollment Suppression

Ideas and Issues

June 1, 2021

New Orleans

Social security benefit programs are federal, whether to the aged, low-income disabled, or survivors’ benefits to children and spouses of deceased workers. Welfare benefits are set and administered by the states, even though there is some federal participation. Studies of the issues in accessing social security benefits by eligible Americans may also shed light on enrollment in welfare benefits as well. The last year of the pandemic, when Social Security offices closed and went remote also provides troubling insight into the impact of direct access.

The New York Times reported on research done in 2019 by Dr. Manasi Deshpande of the University of Chicago on the earlier impact of the SSA closing field offices nationally beginning in 2010. She found the impact of the office closures led to a 10% reduction in disability applications and a 16% plunge in new applications in those areas. Looking at the 118 offices closed by the Social Security Administration she estimated that “786,000 applicants for disability insurance and SSI were discouraged from applying.” She added that she found it likely that during the pandemic, when all offices were closed, the drop would be several times that number. The agency’s own data indicates a 29% decline in SSI awards from July 2020 to April 2021 and a 17% drop in disability payments over that period that likely adds up to 330,000 people missing out on payments over a one-year period.

That’s huge and unacceptable, but Social Security is internally debating continuing telework in the post-pandemic, hoping that requiring more applications by phone and internet can close this gap, despite overwhelming evidence that many of those who most need the benefits among the poor and disabled face barriers when access is restricted in this way. This is a classic conundrum not only in bureaucracies like Social Security and welfare, but in all manner of other corporate, organizational, and institutional settings. Is the work about the people, the clients, consumers, and beneficiaries, or is it about the bureaucracy and its workers? The answer should be easy and obvious, but over and over again we find the opposite.

Closing offices also means removing expertise and assistance that comes from people-to-people exchange. We found this running ACORN Service Centers and tax preparation for our low-to-moderate membership. Once the computer screen was open and the tax income information was inputted by our staff with our people sitting next to them, it was easy to show them that they might be eligible for one of more than a dozen other benefits. In the case of Social Security and its intricate guidelines and programs, someone might be eligible for another one of 80-odd programs. This raises a related paradox. The point of these programs is providing support to eligible participants. Why not do everything possible to make sure that there is maximum eligible participation?

We all know that the drastic reduction in welfare beneficiaries from President Clinton onward has been a deliberate effort to suppress applications and payment of benefits to the poor. Some states now have reach nearly zero welfare beneficiaries. Social Security shouldn’t be allowed to follow that path. This isn’t a customer service issue, but a legal regime of benefits rightly owed to eligible applicants. Success should be defined by achieving as nearly as possible 100% participation, not leaving millions without benefits because eligible people couldn’t get to a nearby office or access someone able to provide the information they needed.