The United States Social Security Administration (SSA) offers financial assistance to individuals with disabilities primarily through two programs:
- Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI): If someone has worked in the past and sufficiently paid into Social Security, they may be eligible to receive this form of disability benefits. To receive these benefits, an individual must also have a condition that impacts their ability to work and is likely to last at least 12 months or eventually result in their passing.
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI): Someone with limited work history may still be eligible to receive disability benefits through the SSA in the form of SSI. To be eligible for SSI, a person must have a qualifying disability as well as meet certain other criteria in regard to their income.
Applying to either of these programs usually involves waiting at least several weeks for the SSA to make a decision about one’s eligibility. However, reports indicate there may currently be a significant backlog, with over one million applications still pending review as of March 2023.
Factors Contributing to the Backlog
The SSA’s disability programs can play a major role in the lives of people living with disabilities who struggle to tend to their own needs due to an inability to work and earn an income. For such individuals, it is very important that the SSA processes applications relatively efficiently. The sooner a person in financial need receives a safety net, the lower the odds are that they’ll struggle to pay for housing, food, etc.
Unfortunately, per new research, the current backlog is preventing the SSA from processing applications as quickly as it otherwise might. Potential factors contributing to the backlog include the following:
- Staffing issues: During the COVID-19 pandemic, the SSA lost approximately 7% of its workforce. Coupled with attrition rates of 25%, this has resulted in a shortage of staff members available to process applications.
- Budget issues: The SSA may lack the financial resources necessary to work through the backlog as quickly as possible. The agency has submitted a request to Congress for an additional $800 million in funding to address the issue, but Congress has yet to approve those funds as of this writing.
- Technological limitations: Having access to the right technological resources could theoretically improve the SSA’s ability to efficiently process a backlog of applications. The agency’s current tech tools may not be sufficient for its needs.
Perhaps most significantly, the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t merely impact staffing at the SSA. It also contributed to an increase in the number of people living with disabilities in the country. It is possible that more Americans than ever before are currently in need of assistance from the SSA’s disability programs.
Consequences of the Backlog
The potential consequences applicants might face as a result of this backlog can vary on a case-by-case basis. The following are merely a few examples of how those in financial need may struggle if their applications for disability benefits are still pending:
- Increased healthcare costs: If someone who is already struggling to tend to their basic needs doesn’t have the funds to pay for sufficient housing, nutritious food, etc., their health may worsen. This could add to their already significant healthcare expenses.
- Mental health struggles: The stress one faces when a disability prevents them from working and earning an income is often very substantial. That stress may only worsen if a person seeking disability benefits is unable to access them in a timely manner due to a backlog of unprocessed applications.
- Homelessness: Many who rely on the SSA’s disability programs to pay for housing could potentially face homelessness while waiting for the SSA to process their claims.
It is worth noting that beneficiaries of these programs are not the only ones who might experience consequences due to the current application backlog at the SSA. If someone waiting to hear back about the status of their application experiences worsening health issues, they may add to the burden on an overtaxed healthcare system.
Efforts to Address the Backlog
Requesting additional funds from Congress is one direct and clear way the SSA is making an effort to manage this problem. The purpose of these funds is to help the agency hire more employees. By addressing a staffing shortage, the SSA could theoretically begin processing applications more efficiently.
The SSA may also identify this backlog as a sign that its technology requires an update. Spending more money on technological resources now could be an investment that yields financial benefits in the long run. Additionally, if the SSA learns any valuable lessons from these circumstances, the agency may develop new policies and procedures to avoid similar difficulties in the future.
Impact on Local Communities
When people living with disabilities and others struggling with significant financial need don’t have access to disability benefits for which they may be eligible, local communities may feel the impact as well. Along with potentially overburdening healthcare systems in communities, this backlog could affect communities by:
- Forcing more people to turn to smaller regional organizations to seek financial assistance
- Adding to the overall stress and mental health issues potentially affecting those whose loved ones are awaiting decisions regarding their applications
- Potentially depriving local businesses of income, as those struggling with financial need may have to significantly reduce their spending until they learn whether they qualify for assistance from disability programs
An SSA Backlog: What it Means for Claimants
Hopefully, the current SSA backlog is a temporary problem. Although individuals may be able to take basic steps to avoid major financial hardship while the problem is being addressed, such as cutting expenses, when possible, it’s very important for Congress and lawmakers in general to take action on a larger scale.
That said, those seeking disability benefits through the SSA should remember that even when there isn’t a backlog of pending applications, it can still take the SSA some time to process a claim. This is one of many reasons to take the Free Case Evaluation to get connected and speak with an independent, participating lawyer who subscribes to our website and can help you today. An attorney may be able to help you avoid some of the pitfalls that can stop your application from being processed in a timely manner.