Angela Sutton was shot by a relative at age 14 in Germantown.
Now 42 and living in Northeast Philadelphia with her two children, ages 21 and 15, Sutton has been unable to work because of disabilities caused by post-traumatic stress, as well as pain from a bullet still lodged in her groin. Lately, a virus has diminished the vision in her right eye.
People suffering like Sutton are eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which pays average monthly benefits of $604 from the Social Security Administration. Around 8 million Americans (including children) with limited income and resources are SSI beneficiaries, 101,000 of them in Philadelphia. Most are mentally or physically disabled and unable to work. Many are blind, or age 65 or older.
Sutton tried to apply for SSI benefits in 2020. But the 1,200 Social Security offices across the United States, including seven in Philadelphia, have been shuttered for two years because of the pandemic. They are set to open Thursday.
Sutton, like thousands of others, attempted to call the balky Social Security 800-number countless times to get her application started, without anyone answering. Or, she was hung up on, or routed to the wrong person. And people can begin, but not complete, an application for SSI online, advocates say.
The federal government has acknowledged telecommunications have been difficult. So, applying in person was Sutton’s only option, which, because of COVID-19, was no option at all.
As a result, Sutton has become one of 500,000 low-income and disabled people nationwide who were unable to receive SSI and SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) benefits over the last two years because of office closures, according to advocates.
Advocates fear that on Thursday, pent-up demand for services related to SSI and other programs may create a confused and chaotic scene in city Social Security offices.
“No one has a sense of how many people are in the queue,” said Rebecca Vallas, senior fellow at the Century Foundation think tank in Washington and a former attorney with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.
“A lot of us are concerned there’ll be huge numbers of low-income, disabled folks showing up at overrun offices,” Vallas said. “They’ll be waiting for hours to be seen, then turned away. People could be coming back day after day for who knows how long for benefits they need for their survival.”
Advocates believe the choke points will be at Social Security offices in University City and Germantown because of large populations of SSI recipients living in those neighborhoods.
It doesn’t help that the Social Security Administration has lost 1,500 workers nationwide in the last two years, according to Kathleen Romig, a Social Security expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.
Claims processing will be slow when it starts up again, said Kate Vengraitis, CLS staff attorney in the SSI unit. It’s unclear how many Philadelphia workers have quit, she added.
Concerned, Sutton said: “It’ll be difficult for me with my pain to stand up and wait in a line. I’ll have to sit on the sidewalk. Hopefully, it’ll be a nice day.”
Mark Hinkle, a spokesperson for the Social Security Administration, said he’s not anticipating disorder when offices reopen.
On its website, the Social Security Administration states that the public “should expect long lines” and “may need to wait outside” when offices reopen.
Hinkle added: “We are on track to safely reenter after thoughtful planning and preparation. Social Security employees are dedicated to serving the public and are up to the job at hand.”
To accommodate increased service demands, Hinkle said, the agency plans to rehire recent retirees “to help us better serve the public.”
Advocates and others expressed anger that the Social Security Administration waited until Monday afternoon to reveal that offices would be opening again in three days.
Jonathan Stein, former general counsel of CLS who’s been working with colleagues without pay to ease the reopening, called the short notice “shocking.”
Ralph DeJuliis, the president of the union of Social Security Administration workers — the American Federation of Government Employees Council 220 — said Monday morning that employees were still in the dark about a reopening. “Is this supposed to be a stealth opening?” he said.
When offices do open their doors, DeJuliis said, it may be a “disaster.”
“People will be socially distanced inside the offices, and then there’ll be long lines outside,” he said. “It’ll be terrible. Employees are freaking out. They know people will be mad.”
The Social Security Administration’s operating budget has been underfunded for years, said Stacy Cloyd, a director at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives, a group that includes attorneys who represent individuals in Social Security cases.
President Joe Biden included $14.8 billion to operate Social Security in his proposed 2023 budget last week, a 14% increase over 2021′s $13 billion budget.
While Biden asked for a $1 billion increase for the agency in the 2022 budget, Congress allotted less than half of that, a continuation of historic underfunding, advocates say.
Because individuals can complete applications online for services such as retirement benefits and SSI applicants cannot, it makes for a “two-track, discriminatory system for the poor and disabled,” Stein said.
With the dysfunctional phone system making applications difficult, if not impossible, he said, many people eligible for SSI but not digitally connected have been forced to live without their stipends. Stein added they face possibly severe consequences such as falling into homelessness. That could be the reason that the rate of new people being added to SSI rolls is down, he opined.
Pennsylvania recorded 31,361 SSI awards to qualified people in 2019, but only 23,106 in 2020, Vengraitis said.
That 26% drop-off of more than 8,000 people in Pennsylvania is the largest in the United States, said Kristen Dama, another CLS expert on SSI. She and other advocates were unable to explain why the state saw the biggest decrease. Hinkle didn’t respond to a question about it.
The shuttering of Social Security offices has also frozen almost 1 million already pending claims nationwide for SSI as well as for Social Security Disability Insurance, open to people who have more work experience, the agency reported.
Stein said he’s eager to see offices open again: “It will be an important step toward remedying the harm of the last two years.”