Social Security launches online sign-up for benefits

Web will help agency deal with flood of retirement applications

January 07, 2009|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,

Baby boomers have lived through the assassinations of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Martin Luther King Jr., the race to the moon and the Communist threat, Watergate and a few wars. Along the way, most became comfortable using computers and the Internet.

Now, as they ease into their golden years, they'll be part of another change: They'll be the first generation who can apply for their Social Security benefits completely online.

Yesterday, the Social Security Administration announced that people who reach retirement age, as early as 62, can go to the federal agency's Web site and fill out a benefits application.

The agency said the push to offer online enrollment will help it manage a flood of retirement requests in coming years.

Officials estimate that as many as 10,000 people a day will become eligible for retirement benefits over the next 20 years, as the first post-World War II generation eases into retirement.

Social Security Administration officials kicked off a public relations blitz yesterday - called Retire Online - with actress Patty Duke, who is volunteering with the agency to help raise awareness about the online effort. A link to the online retirement application is featured at

Mark Hinkle, a spokesman for the agency, which is based in Woodlawn, said the push to move the retirement benefits application - and other applications - to the Web is vital.

The agency's 1,300 field offices across the country won't be able to handle the crush of baby boomers signing up for benefits in the future, so automating the process via the Web will help employees manage the workload, he said.

"You're talking about more work coming in the door and less people to do it," said Hinkle, who noted that the agency's operations have dealt with a history of underfunding since the late 1990s.

"We just don't have the [employee] levels we need in our local field offices to handle all that work that is expected to come in," Hinkle said.

The agency has had a less-robust version of an online application for retirement benefits since 2000; the previous method took about 45 minutes to complete online and required people to verify their signature in writing and provide some paper documentation.

The new process is entirely Web-based and secure and can take 15 minutes to complete. Few applicants will likely need to provide follow-up paperwork, Hinkle said.

Majd Alwan, director of the Center for Aging Services Technologies in Washington, said baby boomers have generally had enough experience with computers and the Internet to feel comfortable with applying for retirement benefits online.

Baby boomers have likely used the Internet at their jobs, bought products from Web sites, and signed up for other services via the Web, he said. There are even social networking Web sites marketed toward baby boomers and senior citizens, he said.

"I think it's a step in the right direction," Alwan said.

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