Funding for Social Security is at a crisis level. It’s hurting the disabled | Opinion

The failure to serve disabled people with intersectional and marginalized identities represents a crisis in equitable access to disability benefits

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(Editor’s Note: This commentary is the third in a series of three on the challenges facing disabled Pennsylvanians as they navigate the Social Security system. It was updated at 1:36 p.m. on Monday, 11/21/22 to add Chi-Ser Tran as a co-author.)

By Claire Grandison and Chi-Ser Tran

Imagine you have a disability that makes it impossible for you to work, and you rely on meager Social Security disability payments to afford basic necessities like food, housing, and clothes. 

Then, imagine receiving a confusing notice in the mail saying you might lose these benefits – your only source of income – and waiting on the phone for almost an hour to get help, and the call suddenly drops. 

Now, imagine spending hours filling out two ten-page forms the Social Security Administration (SSA) says are necessary to keep your benefits, mailing them back, and then receiving a letter weeks later saying that the forms were never received.

This frustrating experience is a reality for many who try to navigate the Social Security benefits system. SSA is facing a crisis in equity and access. SSA has not received funding at the levels it needs to function effectively for more than a decade. Insufficient funding has diminished SSA’s staffing to the lowest levels in 25 years. These factors, combined with lingering effects of the pandemic, have created a backlog that is at an all-time high. 

COVID safety measures plus a broken phone system have also limited access to SSA offices. This lack of access has impacted the hardest-to-reach communities, including individuals who are limited English proficient, Deaf or hard of hearing, immigrants and refugees, people who are precariously housed, people returning from incarceration, those who have intellectual and psychiatric disabilities, people who have low levels of literacy, and many more.

During the pandemic, applications for disability benefits fell 40% at a time when people needed them the most. Applications fell for a variety of reasons, including that SSA’s offices were closed to the public for in-person services until March of 2022, and many people could not get the help they needed to apply for benefits. Nowhere have Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients been hit harder than Pennsylvania, which saw the largest percentage decline of all 50 states, with SSI awards falling over 26% from 2019 to 2020.

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SSA’s failure to appropriately serve disabled people with intersectional and marginalized identities represents a crisis in equitable access to disability benefits. 

In April 2022, SSA released an Equity Action Plan to reduce barriers and with a goal of ensuring that everyone has access to its services. Unfortunately, this plan does not come close to addressing the critical issues that deny access to and create inequities in Social Security disability benefits. Indeed, the plan does not propose any real improvements to accessibility for hard-to-reach communities, nor does it acknowledge barriers to language access or propose solutions to address those barriers. 

In June, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS) hosted a roundtable with local community partners to discuss barriers that prevent people from accessing life-sustaining Social Security disability benefits.

The roundtable participants shared stories of a system designed to keep families trapped in poverty and jeopardize their health.

The participants proposed solutions to address those barriers, including training SSA employees on how to access phone interpreters in accordance with SSA policy, creating a specialized team at SSA that deals specifically with the complexities impacting different immigration statuses or returning citizens, creating more flexibility with mailed paperwork and other deadlines, and many more. 

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This October marked the 50th anniversary of the SSI program. In commemoration, and in response to the experiences and recommendations of community members and people with disabilities, CLS has released a report drawing attention to many of those barriers to access and proposing solutions to address them. 

SSA has been starved for funding for more than a decade, and there are not enough people to do the work to make such a complex system accessible to everyone. SSA funding has reached crisis level. In order to make sure that the SSI program can attain the promise it was created to fulfill, Congress must invest in SSA operations and make the program more accessible. 

Claire Grandison is a Supervising Attorney in the SSI Unit and Youth Justice Project at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. Chi-Ser Tran is a Supervising Attorney in the SSI Unit and leads the Language Access Project at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. 

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.