The SSI application – which generally cannot be completed online – requires an individual to prove their age or medical impairment as well as their financial situation. If an individual has a penny over $2,000 in the bank, they don't quality.
The drop in applications and awards has not been evenly distributed. There's been a particularly steep drop off in applications in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco. And, Romig says, two groups seem to have been especially hurt by the shuttered field offices: non-English speakers and people who are over 65 years old.
"It's really important for those people to have this in-person option and that's something that hasn't been available for nearly a year now," Romig said.
Weaver estimates that, because of the drop in new recipients during the pandemic, more than 120,000 low-income Americans have already missed out on the payments. But, he says, it's not just about the money. In most states, when a person qualifies for SSI, they are automatically eligible for Medicaid, too.
"So, you have a population of disabled individuals and seniors missing out on cash benefits from SSI and missing out on health benefits as well," Weaver said.
Romig wants to see the SSA do more to make up for the lack of in-person services.
"We're not seeing a really robust effort yet and we're really hoping that the agency will undertake one," she said.
On Feb. 11, SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul acknowledged the drop in applications in an email to all SSA employees.
In a statement to NPR, SSA spokesperson Mark Hinkle said, "We know vulnerable populations, especially the SSI population, rely on in-person service. We stepped up our outreach with advocates and third-party organizations to get their perspective about how things are going and to ask them for ideas on how we could improve our service during the pandemic."
He said the SSA is developing a training so caseworkers in the community can help with applications. The agency is also in the process of producing radio, TV and social media ads to raise awareness.
Advocates for seniors and people with disabilities say SSI's current predicament is an opportunity to fix a problem that existed long before the pandemic.
Since the program began in 1974, many of those who are eligible have not gotten benefits. A 2015 study from the University of Michigan found that half of all people eligible for SSI are missing out.
Weaver said there are two main reasons: "They don't know about it, or the application process is too challenging."
He's been brainstorming what to do.
For starters, he says, the SSA has a large database of Americans, and they know who would likely qualify. He points to research showing that mass mailings informing seniors who would likely qualify about the program could boost enrollment substantially. Plus, Weaver says, it's not hard to send out the letters.
"That's very easy to do," he said. "The agency sends out probably a million notices a day for various purposes."
He has another idea, too: Team up with organizations who serve seniors and people with disabilities, such as the AARP and community health centers. Given them brochures to share, and teach them about the program.
Weaver says a lot is riding on getting this right. The people who are missing out on benefits are among the poorest in the country and those at highest risk in the pandemic. And if reforms are implemented it could be helpful even after field offices reopen.