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Applications For Aid Program Helping Seniors And People With Disabilities Plunges

NOEL KING, HOST:

Supplemental Security Income - or SSI - is a federal aid program that helps seniors and people with disabilities. It's run by the Social Security Administration. And for some reason, fewer people have been applying for it during the pandemic. January's numbers, in fact, were the lowest on record. Gabrielle Emanuel of member station GBH looked into what's going on.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Breast cancer left Elena Muraveva with migraines and debilitating pain. Unable to work, she was told she'd likely qualify for SSI disability benefits. A recent refugee from Russia, Muraveva doesn't speak English. But still, she was eager to go to the Social Security Administration field office and apply.

ELENA MURAVEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

EMANUEL: "We thought we could do it easily or at least there'd be someone there we could ask where to go and what to do," she says. Yet before she could make it there, the pandemic struck. And field offices shut their doors. Muraveva worked up the courage to ask a neighbor to help her apply over the phone.

MURAVEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

EMANUEL: "We called. And it was like, you are 250th in line. Please, wait. And we wait and wait and wait. She and I never reached a point where someone would talk to us," she says. Soon, COVID meant it wasn't safe to see her neighbor who was helping her. So she called the Social Security Administration herself using Google Translate for the phone prompts. That didn't work, neither did any of her other attempts.

KATHLEEN ROMIG: It's much more complicated to apply for a disability benefit than it is to apply for retirement or survivor's benefit.

EMANUEL: Kathleen Romig is with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. She says new benefit awards are down about 30% during the pandemic.

ROMIG: And that's true especially for people who are older and for people who speak English as a second language.

EMANUEL: Before the pandemic in 2019, a whopping 43 million people across the country visited an SSA field office. And that's where many of them found out about the SSI program and got help applying. But now they are shuttered. Romig wants to see the SSA do more to make people aware of this program that's distinct from Social Security benefits.

ROMIG: We're not seeing a really robust effort yet. And we're really hoping that the agency will undertake one.

EMANUEL: The SSA has acknowledged the drop. In a statement, they said that they are developing a training for caseworkers in the community to help with applications. And they are in the process of producing multimedia ads to raise awareness.

DAVID WEAVER: I worked for the Social Security Administration for over 20 years.

EMANUEL: Before David Weaver retired, he headed up one of their research arms. About 8 million people get SSI benefits. But he estimates that because of the drop in new recipients during the pandemic, more than 100,000 low-income Americans are already missing out on the payments. He says this is an opportunity to address a problem the program had even before COVID. Studies show that nearly 50% of people who were eligible weren't getting benefits. They didn't know about the program or applying was just too darn hard. Weaver's been brainstorming what to do now. He points to research that shows you can boost enrollment with mass mailings.

WEAVER: That's very easy to do. The agency sends out, probably, a million notices a day for various purposes.

EMANUEL: Weaver says a lot is riding on this. And if the SSA can solve this during the pandemic, it can improve access even long after field offices reopen. For NPR News, I'm Gabrielle Emanuel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEVERKIN AND VACANT'S "MARCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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