Kate covers the impact of COVID-19 on the economy.
For nearly five years, she reported on poverty, social services, and affordable housing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; prior to that, she spent several years in the newspaper’s bureau in Harrisburg, covering the legislature, governor, and state government.
She was part of the PG staff that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting on the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. She has won numerous national and local awards for her reporting and was honored with a 2020 Keystone Media Award for her beat reporting on poverty.
She also previously reported for several Ohio newspapers and covered the steel industry for a trade magazine.
While field offices have reopened for in-person services, obstacles remain for people seeking disability benefits, according to a report released earlier this month by a legal advocacy group.
The report blames years of underfunding, exacerbated by prolonged pandemic office closures, for the difficulties of accessing Social Security, disability insurance and supplemental security income, two major benefit programs for people with disabilities.
The Social Security Administration has spent more than half a million fewer SSI awards than if it had continued at pre-pandemic rates, the report notes.
“This sharp decline has had a disproportionate impact on black and brown people. Nowhere have SSI recipients been hit harder than Pennsylvania, which saw the largest percentage drop of all 50 states, with SSI grants dropping more than 26% between 2019 and 2020,” said the report from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.
SSI and SSDI are “critical lifelines for millions of people with disabilities,” said Chi-Ser Tran, a supervisory attorney at Community Legal Services and one of the report’s authors. “But more than a decade of underfunding has made it extremely difficult for people with disabilities to access the Social Security benefits they need to survive. When people apply for benefits, they can’t reach the Social Security Administration for help by phone or in person. And SSA employees often lack customer service training or skills. Nationally, almost half of the calls to SSA go unanswered.”
Experts have said federal underfunding and resulting staffing problems have made it more difficult for the agency to provide adequate customer service in recent years. Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey suggested in a letter earlier this year that a Beneficiary Advocate position be created in the Social Security Administration to ensure the best possible service.
Among the issues the report identified:
- Claimants cannot easily reach the Social Security Administration for help
- People with limited English cannot access benefits or services
- Reporting income to the agency is ‘unnecessarily difficult’
- Insufficient training leads to employees falsely denying some benefits
Tran said it wasn’t clear why Pennsylvania saw a bigger decline in benefits than other states.
Among the recommendations the report offers: to ensure that the Social Security Administration creates more user-friendly income reporting systems that accommodate people with disabilities, do not penalize those unable to report income due to technical difficulties, and for the agency to train staff better work with people with disabilities. It also says Congress should prioritize funding for the Social Security Administration.