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Social Security Clawbacks Are Driving Some Recipients Into Homelessness

The government is imposing debts that can reach tens of thousands of dollars against those least able to pay.

Maria LaMalfa at the Tell Rep LaLota: Stop MAGA Cuts! Protect Social Security! rally on February 23, 2023, in Huntington, New York.

More than a year after the federal government first cut off her disability benefits, Denise Woods drives nightly to strip malls, truck stops, and parking lots around Savannah, Georgia, looking for a safe place to sleep in her Chevy.

Woods, 51, said she had rented a three-bedroom house she shared with her adult son and grandson until March 2022, when the government terminated her disability payments without notice.

According to letters sent by the Social Security Administration, the agency determined it had been overpaying Woods and demanded she send back nearly $58,000.

Woods couldn’t come up with the money. So, until February 2026, the agency is withholding the $2,048 in disability she would have received each month.

“I still don’t know how it happened,” said Woods, who has requested a waiver and is seeking a hearing. “No one will give me answers. It takes weeks or months to get a caseworker on the phone. They have made my life unbearable.”

Kilolo Kijakazi, acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration, told a congressional subcommittee in October that her agency notifies recipients when they have received overpayments and works to “help those who want to establish repayment plans or who seek waiver of the debt.”

But relief from overpayments goes to only a relatively small number of people. And many others face dire consequences: Some become homeless, are evicted from rental housing, or see their mortgages fall into foreclosure.

The SSA has a painful legacy of excluding Black people from benefits. Today the agency’s own published research shows its overpayments most often hit Black and Hispanic people, the poorest of the poor, those with the least education, and those whose medical conditions are unlikely to improve.

Woods is one of millions who have been targeted in the Social Security Administration’s attempt to claw back billions of dollars it says was wrongly sent to beneficiaries. Years can pass before the agency catches a mistake, and even the little bit extra it might send each month can add up.

In reclaiming it, the government is imposing debts that can reach tens of thousands of dollars against those least able to pay.

“Wreaking Havoc in People’s Lives”

KFF Health News and Cox Media Group reporters interviewed people who have received overpayment notices and nonprofit attorneys who advocate for them and reviewed SSA publications, policy papers, and congressional testimony.

A 64-year-old Florida man said he could no longer afford rent after his Social Security retirement payments were garnished last year because he allegedly had been overpaid $35,176 in disability benefits. He said he now lives in a tent in the woods. A 24-year-old Pennsylvania woman living with her mother and younger siblings in public housing lost the chance to buy her own home because of an alleged $6,063 overpayment that accrued when she was a child.

“Social Security overpayments are wreaking havoc in people’s lives,” said Jen Burdick, an attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which represents clients who have received overpayment notices. “They are asking the poorest among us to account for every dollar they get. Under their rules, some people can save up money for a funeral burial but not enough to get housing.”

Woods has lupus and congestive heart failure and struggles to walk, but she started working part-time after her benefits were rescinded. She said she makes $14 an hour transporting railroad crew members in her 2015 Chevy Equinox between Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida, when she can get assignments and her health allows it.

The SUV costs $386 a month — a large portion of her income — but without it, Woods said, she would not have a job or a place to sleep.

“My life is just survival now,” Woods said. “Sometimes I feel like I am just waiting to die.”

The Social Security Administration has said it is required by law to attempt to recover overpayments. Notices ask beneficiaries to repay the money directly. Authorities can also recoup money by reducing or halting monthly benefits and garnishing wages and federal tax refunds.

Agency officials describe an orderly process in which they explain to beneficiaries the reason for the overpayment and offer the chance to appeal the decision and have the charges waived if they cannot afford it. One way to qualify for a waiver is if “paying us back would mean you could not pay your bills for food, clothing, housing, medical care or other necessary expenses,” according to a letter sent to one recipient.

Those most impacted by Social Security’s decisions, including people with disabilities and widows receiving survivors’ benefits, paint a different picture. They talk about having their benefits terminated without explanation or warning, an appeals process that can drag on for years, and an inability to get answers from the SSA to even basic questions.

Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, a group that pushes for the protection and expansion of the program, recalled how stressful it was when a colleague’s mother received an overpayment notice.

“After weeks of nonstop phone calls, he was able to get the matter resolved, but not before it put his mother in the hospital,” Altman said. “One can just imagine how much worse it would be for someone for whom English is not their native language, who lacks a high school education, and who is unassisted by such a knowledgeable and caring advocate.”

Problems surrounding the Social Security Administration are aggravated by congressional actions, including funding shortages that brought agency staffing to a 25-year low by the end of fiscal year 2022. Even so, advocates for people with disabilities say the agency does far less than it could to help people who have been overpaid, often through no fault of their own.

They said challenges faced by beneficiaries underscore how overpayments disproportionately impact Black people and other minority groups even as President Joe Biden and Social Security leaders promise to fix racial inequity in government programs.

Most overpayments are linked to the Supplemental Security Income program, which gives money to people with little or no income who are disabled, blind, or at least 65. The majority of SSI recipients are Black, Hispanic, or Asian people.

“Congress has turned a blind eye to this,” said David Weaver, a former associate commissioner for research, demonstration, and employment support at the SSA. Politicians “just want to save money. It is misplaced priorities. It is completely inexcusable.”

The Social Security Administration did not make its leaders available for an interview. Spokesperson Nicole Tiggemann declined to answer questions about the cases of Woods and other beneficiaries, citing privacy laws.

In a written statement, Tiggemann acknowledged that receiving an overpayment notice can be “unsettling,” but said the agency helps beneficiaries navigate the process and informs them of their rights if they believe they were not at fault or cannot repay the debt.

“Even if they do not want to appeal or request a waiver, the notice says to contact us if the planned withholding would cause hardship,” Tiggemann said. “We have flexible repayment options — including repayment of as low as $10 per month. Each person’s situation is unique, and we handle overpayments on a case-by-case basis.”

Critics say fighting an overpayment notice is not that simple.

Beneficiaries — many challenged by physical, mental, or intellectual disabilities — often are overwhelmed by complex paperwork or unable to find financial documents that may be years old.

The Social Security Administration has the authority to waive overpayments if officials determine recovering them would violate “equity and good conscience,” or the disputed amount falls below certain thresholds. The agency’s guidance also says collecting an overpayment “defeats the purpose” when the “individual needs substantially all of their current income to meet their current ordinary and necessary living expenses.”

Advocates for people with disabilities contend most overpayments arise from delays in processing paperwork and errors by the Social Security Administration or recipients making innocent mistakes. The agency can waive overpayments when the beneficiary is found not at fault.

But in fiscal year 2023, the Social Security Administration collected about $4.9 billion in overpayments with an additional $23 billion yet uncollected, according to an agency report. Just $267 million was waived, the report said.

David Camp, the interim chief executive officer of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, which advocates for improvements in federal disability programs, said the Social Security Administration is a “broken structure.”

The agency sometimes tries to claw back overpayments from people falsely accused of failing to provide required documents, Camp said.

“Dropping off forms at their field offices is not a guarantee” paperwork will be processed, he said. “Mail is slow, or it doesn’t get opened. We see it so many times you are left with the idea that has to do with the structure.”

Left Destitute

Advocacy groups and others said they don’t know how many people become homeless after their benefits are terminated, but they say anecdotal accounts are common.

A study found that more than 800,000 disability applicants from 2007 to 2017 experienced homelessness. Advocates say it only makes sense that overpayments could lead more people to become homeless, since nearly 40% of people receiving disability benefits experience food insecurity and cannot keep up with their rent and utility bills, according to research.

Ronald Harrell sleeps in the woods near Wildwood, Florida, about 50 miles northwest of Orlando. He said he shelters in a tent, cooks his meals on a small grill, and showers at a friend’s house.

Harrell, 64, said he rented a room in a house for $125 a week until last year, when the Social Security Administration cut off his retirement benefits.

A letter the SSA sent him, dated Feb. 6, 2023, says his benefits are being withheld because of overpayment of $35,176 that accrued when Harrell received disability payments. The letter acknowledges he has asked the agency to lower his payments.

“I don’t know how they are doing this to me,” Harrell said. “I did everything by the law.”

Harrell said he once worked as an HVAC technician, but nerve damage left him unable to work sometime around 2002.

He said he collected disability benefits until about 2009, when rehabilitation allowed him to return to the workforce, and he said he reported the information to the federal government. Harrell said he applied for early Social Security retirement benefits last year when his health again declined.

“I started working when I was 16,” Harrell said. “I never thought my life would be like this.”

Kijakazi, the acting Social Security commissioner, and others have said overpayments stem at least partly from low staffing and budget cuts.

From 2010 to 2023, the agency’s customer service budget dropped by 17%, after inflation, according to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank that conducts research on government programs.

At the same time, the report says, the number of Social Security beneficiaries grew by nearly 12 million people, or 22%.

Jonathan Stein, a former attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia who has participated in workgroups and meetings with federal officials about access to Social Security payments for vulnerable populations, said budget cuts cannot fully account for the agency’s penchant for denying applications and terminating benefits.

Officials suspended Supplemental Security Income benefits for about 136,540 people in 2019 for “failure to furnish report,” which means they did not meet deadlines or paperwork requirements, Stein said, despite knowing many of those people were unable to contact the agency because they are homeless or have been evicted and lost access to phones and computers.

That’s more than double the number in 2010, he said.

“They have an implicit bias for denying benefits,” Stein said. “It is a very skewed view of integrity. It reinforces a culture of suspicion and prosecution of applicants.”

The 24-year-old Pennsylvania woman who received Supplemental Security Income as a child because of a learning disability described her ordeal on the condition that her name not be published. A letter from the Social Security Administration says she received an overpayment notice for more than $6,000.

“It was frustrating,” the woman said. “You are dealing with nasty people on the phone. I couldn’t get any answers.”

In November 2022, she contacted a nonprofit law firm, which helped her file an appeal. One year later, she received another letter from Social Security saying the overpayment had been waived because it was not her fault. The letter also said officials would not seek repayment because she could not afford basic needs such as food and housing without the monthly benefits.

The woman had already paid a price.

She lived in public housing and the Philadelphia Housing Authority had offered her a chance to fulfill a long-held goal of owning a house. But when the overpayment appeared on her credit report, she said, she could not obtain a mortgage.

“I was excited about getting my own home,” she said. “That’s what everybody wants. Losing it is not a good feeling.”

David Hilzenrath of KFF Health News, Jodie Fleischer of Cox Media Group, and Ben Becker of ActionNewsJax in Jacksonville, Florida, contributed to this report.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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