More retirees would apply for their Social Security benefits online if they knew they could do it and get answers to basic questions about the process, according to a new study.
Only about 35% of retirees apply for their Social Security benefits entirely online, without any phone calls or visits to the local agency office, according to according to an estimate by the Center of Retirement Research at Boston College based on a survey of 2,600 older Americans. The Center conducted the study on behalf of the U.S. Social Security Administration, where the agency’s research team sought data on service delivery improvements, Jean-Pierre Aubry said. , the report’s author and associate director of the national and local research organization.
The data comes after President Biden signed an executive order last month, forcing the agency’s commissioner to take five actions that are part of nearly three dozen across the government that he noted “will make it easier to apply for services and benefits” without, for example, needing to visit an SSA office in person. The agency is only receiving 53% of its pension benefit applications online after a slight increase to 60% during the pandemic over the past two years, according to the center’s study. Greater use of online tools would provide convenience for retirees and savings on real estate and government staffing, Aubry said.
“We also discovered that there are situations that are going to require meeting in person,” Aubry said in an interview. “You want people to claim in the way they can, in the way they want, in the way that’s most accessible to them.”
Aubry’s report calls for the agency to implement online methods for resolving routine inquiries such as verifying eligibility for benefits and tracking a submitted claim. Making retirees aware of the ability of the agency’s website to handle requests and to correct certain data errors are other main ideas. These changes could increase the share of retirees claiming their benefits entirely online by 15 to 20 percentage points. A younger group of incoming retirees could increase the share by another 3 points. When asked why they applied in person or over the phone, survey participants listed not knowing there was an online option as the most common reason at 13%, according to the ‘investigation.
“Retiring baby boomers are increasing demand for SSA services at a time when budget constraints and staff retirements limit the agency’s ability to provide these services,” the report said. “In theory, investing in web-based tools that people can use to self-serve could help SSA meet projected increases in demand, even with fewer staff. But, despite SSA investments, the share of retirees applying for benefits online has hovered around 50% since 2013.”
If the federal government made the Social Security application more digital-friendly, it could partner with private companies to provide services, tech executives say.
The agency has “a great public-private partnership opportunity” with online tools, according to Rhian Horgan, CEO of the retirement planning education and savings app. Silver, which counts some 120,000 baby boomers with an average age of 59 among its customers. She cites successful examples of collaboration between government and private companies, such as Medicare Blue Button Apps for medical records.
The challenge is that the SSA has traditionally placed the onus on consumers to submit identity and income verification documents rather than using available online tools or obtaining data directly from the IRS, a said Horgan in an interview. Personalized information specific to certain demographic groups and creating interfaces designed for seniors could also increase online adoption, she said.
“The American consumer spends a lot of time online trying to figure out [Social Security benefits]. They’re also buying 300-page books about it, and that alone should tell you there’s a problem,” Horgan said of Social Security retiree election decisions. “They feel like there are probably flaws and a lot of complexity, and they’re doing a lot of research.”
The December 13 White House executive order contained specific instructions for the agency’s commissioner to make it easier to get Social Security benefits. The administration made several demands in the order: a report analyzing how to modernize services “that currently require original or physical documentation or in-person appearance”; the creation of a mobile-friendly online portal allowing more beneficiaries to avoid visits to the office; revising any guidelines requiring “members of the public to provide physical signatures”; and a system to help recipients know if they are eligible for other state or federal benefits. Federal government departments and executive agencies impose a “tax on time” through more than 9 billion hours of mandatory paperwork a year, the order says.
“For millions of people retiring each year, you should be able to apply for Social Security benefits without having to go to a Social Security office and ask Medicare to proactively contact you with the tools you have. need to manage your health and save money,” President Biden said in remarks after signing the order. “The bottom line is that we’re going to make government work more effectively for American citizens , so it’s not as confusing and it’s simple.”
The administration’s order is part of an “evolving effort” to improve service experiences across government over the past few decades, Aubry said. Regarding the government’s plans to raise awareness of online tools, advisers could also play a role in their work with millions of pensioners nationwide, he said.
“Financial advisors are part of that communication,” Aubry said. “If financial advisors tell their clients about these opportunities, that also helps increase that percentage.”