County-Level Drivers of Disability Benefit Claims in Times of COVID-19



The COVID-19 pandemic likely affected applications and awards for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).  This paper uses Social Security Administration (SSA) administrative data on applications and awards, combined with county-level data on COVID-19 severity, unemployment, and proximity to an SSA field office, to understand drivers of application and award rates.  Specifically, it examines how changes from 2019 to 2020 in SSI and SSDI application and award rates were related to county-level factors affected by the pandemic.

The paper found the following:

  • Counties that were closer to as SSA field office experienced larger declines in SSI and SSDI application and award rates between 2019 and 2020 compared with counties further away from the nearest field office.
  • SSDI application rates grew more in counties with a larger increase in unemployment rates.
  • Changes in SSI and SSDI application and award rates were not consistently associated with levels of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

The findings have several policy implications:

  • Applying for disability benefits in person at an SSA field office seems to be an important factor. When field offices closed early during the pandemic, it affected potential applicants for SSI and SSDI who would have otherwise likely applied in person and were less likely to do so due to field office closures.
  • Beyond the closure of field offices, the COVID-19 pandemic did not systematically disrupt SSI and SSDI applications and awards during our analysis period (which went to the end of 2020).

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