Social Security Disability Myths v. Facts

We cannot let people with disabilities become victims of misinformation or Washington political fights over the federal budget. Unfortunately, Americans who wish to make informed decisions based on facts rather than myths have been subject to enumerable misstatements by political figures and those with a political agenda. The SSDI program has even been touted as “modern-day slavery” by a Florida Congressman, and a certain right-wing pundits claim SSDI is “a con” and that it is “easy to put in a bogus disability claim.”

Social Security Disability Insurance remains a vital lifeline for citizens who once held full-time jobs but have become too ill or injured to work. It is not a program being gamed by the lazy or unemployable.

1. MYTH: It has never been easier to obtain Social Security disability benefits.

FACT: Getting disability approval is harder than ever. SSA has tightened the standards for qualifying for disability for many medical conditions including mental retardation and HIV. Diabetes and obesity are no longer distinct disabilities evaluated under Social Security’s listed impairments.

2. MYTH: Social Security Disability pays benefits to Alcoholics and Drug Addicts.

FACT: Alcoholism and drug abuse are disqualified as qualifying disabilities.

3. MYTH: Most of the people receiving disability have short term disabilities and could have returned to work but were put on the government payroll.

FACT: Applications must present objective medical evidence of medically determinable impairments likely to result in death or be disabling for 12 months before ever receiving a single dollar in SS disability benefits. Many SS applications take longer than 12 months for SSA to process and the decisions on disability are made then by decision makers after the individual has already been disabled for 12 months or longer.

4. MYTH: Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) are bankrupting the Social Security Disability Insurance program by rubber stamping every disability claim that they hear.

FACT: Despite sensational media reports, the average ALJ approval rate for 2011 was 58 percent, down from 63% in 2009 and from 72.3% in 1994. In 2011, one ALJ had an approval rate as low as 12.7 percent. Furthermore, more than three-quarters of all decisions favoring the disability claimant are made by state agencies before ever reaching an ALJ. In all, ALJ decisions comprise less than 25 percent of all SSDI awards.

5. MYTH: ALJs do not examine the individual merits of each case; instead, they just approve every disability that they review.

FACT: ALJs approve only a small percentage of the overall claims approved, and they apply strict standards that have led to them approving a lower percentage of claims than they did a few years ago. But they do approve some claims that previously were denied, because ALJ hearings are most claimants’ first opportunity to actual explain why they are disabled, and to bring witnesses. ALJs also often get help from expert witnesses to help them make the right decision. Even though delays are becoming shorter, many people get worse waiting for a hearing, and they continue to receive medical treatment so that ALJs have more evidence than existed before their hearings.

6. MYTH: An increasing number of people taking advantage of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program is accelerating Social Security’s insolvency.

FACT: According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), the Disability Insurance Trust Fund’s share of the overall annual cost of the Social Security program peaked in 2003, not 2011. In fact, SSA projects that the number of workers per disability beneficiary is expected to be relatively stable in the future. This means that restoring sustainability for SSDI will not require continually greater benefit cuts or revenue increases. A one-time change to offset the drop in birth rate will sustain the program into the foreseeable future.

7. MYTH: The high unemployment rate is the primary reason that more Americans are seeking SSDI benefits. The program is becoming an extension of unemployment insurance.

FACT: It is a misrepresentation to claim that a surge in unemployed applicants are looking to get on the public dole through SSDI. Applications are higher than they were years ago because the population has increased, Baby-Boomers are getting older and having more disabilities, more women are working so they are more likely to be insured and to be injured, and medical advancements are saving the lives of people with serious medical conditions that used to be fatal. Moreover, in a difficult economy accommodations for disabled workers are less likely to be available.

The Center on Budget and Policies Priorities (CBPP) released a report on SSDI indicating that SSDI is vital to workers with severe impairments.

The CBPP reports:

  • Baby boomers have aged into their high-disability years. Aging takes a toll on many workers’ bodies and minds long before retirement age. People are roughly twice as likely to be disabled at age 50 as at age 40, and twice as likely to be disabled at age 60 as at age 50. (See Figure 2.) As the baby boomers – the huge cohort of people born between 1946 and 1964 – have grown older, the number of disability cases has risen substantially.
  • More women have qualified for disability benefits. In general, workers with severe impairments can get disability benefits only if they have worked for at least one-fourth of their adult life and for five of the last ten years. Until women joined the workforce in significantly greater numbers in the 1970s and 1980s, relatively few women met those tests; as recently as 1990, male disabled workers outnumbered women by nearly 2 to 1. Now that more women have worked long enough to qualify for disability benefits, the ratio has fallen to 1.1 to 1. This has been a large factor behind the increase in the number of DI beneficiaries.

The Congressional Budget Office statistics document the population composition factors that are increasing the number of disabled workers.

CBO report statistics:

  • Much of the recent growth in the share of the population that comprises disabled workers stems from increases in the number of women receiving disabled worker benefits. Between 1995 and 2011, women receiving disabled worker benefits increased from 1.0 percent to 2.1 percent of all working-age adults.
  • Part of the growth in the SSDI program reflects the aging of the large baby-boom generation (people born between 1946-1964) and consequently the aging of the workforce. Between 1996-2009, the period during which baby-boomers entered their 50s, the share of disabled worker benefits awarded to older workers (age 45 and older) rose from 67 percent to 76 percent.

8. MYTH: The current SSDI program is set up so that it keeps able-bodied people out of the workforce when they are employable.

FACT: Disability benefits are so low compared even to minimum-wage work that it cannot reasonably be considered an incentive not to work. And benefits do not start right away, even for those who successfully complete the difficult application process. Furthermore, the program has many incentives built in for those who want to return to work, including trial work periods, insurance continuation, and even retraining.

9. MYTH: The current system favors disability over work. Paying out disability benefits hurts working people.

FACT: The fact is we all have a stake in seeing deserving people with disabilities get the benefits they need and have earned.

  • There are significant societal costs when claimants are improperly denied benefits. These costs include increased home foreclosures and evictions; homelessness; family dissolutions; bankruptcies; welfare payments; strains on Medicaid and other residual indigent health care systems from postponed care; human suffering when a claimant cannot obtain medical treatment; and sometimes even death.
  • They also include the appellate litigation and legal system costs of further appeals from improper benefit denials in federal court. When the government makes an incorrect decision denying benefits, legal fees may be incurred by the government under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA).
  • People get frustrated and concerned that a government program that most people have been required to pay into for decades will not be able to provide coverage if and when it is needed.

10. MYTH: Disability programs are primarily serving the homeless and poor.

FACT: A report released in May of 2012 by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty shows that bureaucratic barriers are preventing thousands of homeless Americans from accessing Social Security disability benefits that could help them get off the street. Social Security benefits, including Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), are critical to keeping people with disabilities in stable housing through income support and health services. Unfortunately, the application process is cumbersome and freezes out many eligible homeless people. While up to 40 percent are potentially eligible due to physical or mental disability, only 14 percent actually receive benefits.

We cannot let people with disabilities become victims of misinformation or Washington political fights over the federal budget.

  • If you pay into the Social Security system, you earn the right to its benefits. The denial or extreme delay of benefits to those who qualify for SSDI is an injustice, which claimant’s representatives can help to address.
  • Protecting Social Security Disability Insurance is about keeping a promise to help all Americans, regardless of their means, age or disability. Social Security Disability Insurance remains a vital lifeline for citizens who once held full-time jobs but have become too ill or injured to work. It is not a program being gamed by the lazy or unemployable.
  • While everyone agrees that the federal government can improve all entitlement programs and make the best use of taxpayer dollars, turning our back on Americans with disabilities is not the place to start. Inadequate funding of Social Security Disability Insurance only pushes the problem to the states and local communities.
  • There are strains on the Social Security system that should not be blamed on disabled Americans who need support. The SSDI program provides income to nonelderly adults most of whom have worked in the past and have contributed to the fund-but are determined unable to work now because of a medical condition that is expected to last at least a year or to result in death.