Tips for Finding Social Security Information Online

I’m sure lots of my readers are always looking for Social Security information online. So am I. Even though I’ve got 50 years’ worth of Social Security knowledge stacked up in my brain, it sometimes gets a little muddled and I need to check something out or verify what I think I know. So, I go online for answers or clarification.

One great source is to go straight to the horse’s mouth, which would be the website for the Social Security Administration. It’s www.socialsecurity.gov. Even though the agency has done a poor job lately in the area of direct customer service (as I’ve documented many times in recent columns), it still maintains a pretty impressive website. There are lots of things you can do at that site, like filing a claim for most Social Security benefits or replacing a lost Social Security card.

But today, I’m primarily focused on helping people who are trying to get general information about Social Security or people who are trying to get some specific questions answered. And one good place to do that is under that part of www.socialsecurity.gov called “Publications.” (You’ll find the “Publications” link near the bottom of the homepage.)

The SSA produces about 100 pamphlets and fact sheets that explain, in relatively easy-to-understand language, most things you need to know about Social Security’s various programs and policies. When you click on the “Publications” link, it will open up a page with some publications listed. But just pull down the “Topics” menu and you will find a range of topics like Retirement, Disability, Medicare, etc.

For example, let’s say you want some information about how retirement benefits are calculated. Under the Retirement topic, you will find a fact sheet called “Your Retirement Benefit: How It Is Figured.”

Or if you think a recently increased Medicare premium is wrong, under the Medicare topic you will find a pamphlet called “What You Can Do if You Think Your Medicare Income-Related Premium is Incorrect.”

As I said, there are hundreds of publications available. So, I’m pretty sure you can find one that answers whatever Social Security question you might have. And by the way, one reason I know so much about these publications is because I have a direct link to them. One of my past jobs with the SSA was as the chief editor of all the agency’s public information materials, including all the pamphlets and fact sheets.

Even though I am very familiar with the SSA’s publications, and I’m somewhat familiar with the entire SSA website, even I sometimes still have trouble finding exactly the information I’m looking for.

The SSA website has a “Search” box, and that can be helpful. But I’ve found it can sometimes lead me down a rabbit hole of unusual information that really doesn’t help me. For example, I recently typed in “annual earnings test.” (This is the rule that limits how much a Social Security beneficiary under full retirement age can earn and still collect benefits.) Among hundreds of links that popped up, there were more than a few that led to arcane studies done by the SSA’s actuaries and policy experts about that provision of the law.

That’s why I oftentimes prefer to go straight to an internet search engine, like Google, to find the information I’m looking for. And here is a big tip for those of you doing the same. Always start out your search with the words “Social Security.”

Here is an example of what I mean. Let’s say you are getting disability benefits and you want to try working and you are wondering how that might affect your eligibility for benefits. You could go into Google and type “Disability benefits and work” or something like that and you probably will eventually find what you’re looking for. But if you type in “Social Security disability benefits and work,” you’ll have a much better chance of getting the information you need.

On a related note, many readers are always telling me they want to see “something in writing” about some Social Security policy. The “bible” for all Social Security rules and laws is something called the “Program Operations Manual System,” or POMS. Everything you might ever want to know about a Social Security policy is somewhere in POMS. But even I, after 50 years of working with the document, have trouble finding what I want in POMS because it is so extensive. So lately, I’ve been using Google to get to POMS. For example, if I wanted to see the eligibility rules for widow’s benefits, I would go to Google and type “Social Security POMS widow’s benefits” and it would lead me directly to the POMS section on those kinds of benefits.

One reason you may be looking for information online is because for almost two years now, it’s been almost impossible to talk to a human being at the SSA. And that leads to something I want to get off my chest. It’s a message to the leaders of the Social Security Administration. IT’S TIME TO REOPEN LOCAL SOCIAL SECURITY OFFICES. Millions of businesses and government agencies around the nation and around the world have reopened. Some a long time ago. Yet the SSA offices essentially remain closed, except for very unusual situations.

I really have no idea why local Social Security offices are still closed. I’ve got a hunch it’s a union thing. Way back in January, the head of the SSA issued a press release that started out with this statement: “I am very pleased to share that we have successfully reached agreement with our three labor unions on our reentry plan.”

That was almost three months ago. And still nothing has happened. It’s time for those offices to reopen. Services offered by the SSA have slipped to unprecedentedly poor levels. I constantly (like every single day) hear from readers who tell me that they wait for hours to get through to someone at the agency’s toll-free number (800-772-1213). Or they wait for months to get a Social Security problem resolved.

I just think it’s time to send employees back to their workstations, whether that be in a local Social Security office, or one of the call centers, or at the agency’s various processing centers and headquarters offices. OK, I got that off my chest.

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