The Impact of Affordable and Accessible Broadband on SSDI and SSI Participation

Published: 2023


Online access to government services and benefits has become increasingly prevalent, but a substantial portion of low-income, disabled individuals live without a home broadband connection. We study how the launch of a large-scale broadband subsidy program affected participation in the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs. Using difference-in-differences leveraging geographic variation in the broadband subsidy program, we find that SSDI and SSI participation rates significantly increased in areas where the program became available. Effects were driven by areas with fewer physical Social Security Administration offices. Mechanisms appear tied to the convenience of the online application portal, and not to indirect benefits of home broadband such as improved information gathering.

Key Findings

    • Broadband Subsidies and SSDI Participation: Internet Essentials, a national broadband subsidy program by Comcast providing low-income households with a home broadband connection for $10/month, led to a 1.7 percentage point increase (5.7%) in SSDI receipt among low-income adults with disabilities.
      • The effect of Internet Essentials was larger in areas with fewer SSA offices, implying greater benefits in regions where physical access to SSA services is more challenging.
      • No similar effect on SSDI participation was observed in locations served by other national Internet Service Providers (ISPs), confirming the unique influence of Internet Essentials.
    • Broadband Subsidies and SSI Participation: After the online SSI application became available in 2017, areas with Internet Essentials experienced a 1.9 percentage point (5.3%) increase in SSI receipt among a restricted subset of individuals who were able to apply online (i.e., never-married, low-income citizens).
      • This effect rises to 3.2 percentage points (8.6%) in areas with low access to SSA field offices.
      • No effect was observed from 2012 (when Internet Essentials launched) to 2017 (when SSI online applications began), suggesting that the effect is driven by access to online applications, and not from other general benefits of broadband access such as access to information and resources.
      • This is further underscored by the fact that no effect was documented for ever-married individuals with disabilities, who are not permitted to apply online.
    • Future Gaps: Among disabled individuals without broadband, half cited a lack of need/interest as the key barrier, one-quarter cited price, and less than 5% cited a lack of available broadband networks. Funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) will largely bridge the latter two barriers, but efforts to address the most prevalent barrier — improving digital literacy and confidence — remain limited.


Zuo, George, and David Powell. 2023. “The Impact of Affordable and Accessible Broadband on SSDI and SSI Participation.” Ann Arbor, MI. University of Michigan Retirement and Disability Research Center (MRDRC) Working Paper; MRDRC WP 2023-467.