The Social Security disability system has a very strict definition of disability. Social Security demands that applicants prove, with objective medical evidence, that their medical conditions prevent the performance of any gainful work on a fulltime basis. For example, a truck driver who is found medically unable to drive his rig may not be disabled in the eyes of Social Security if his medical records do not also prove that he cannot perform an easier job instead.
Recently, some people have become alarmed by the increase in disability applicants.
However, it is more difficult to obtain disability benefits than ever before. Over the years Congress has continued to tighten the eligibility criteria to receive disability benefits. For example, in 1996, Congress enacted a provision barring claimants with alcohol or drug problems from receiving disability benefits if alcohol or drugs are the cause of their disability. There was once an objective standard for awarding people on the basis of obesity. That is gone now. There was once an objective standard for awarding applicants with diabetes. That is gone now. And in our opinion, the definition of mental retardation has been tightened to the point where mentally retarded individuals cannot receive disability benefits unless they prove they are completely dependent on others to survive.
The number of Social Security disability beneficiaries has recently increased despite the constant tightening of eligibility standards. However, this current trend was predicted by a study as far back as 1994. Older individuals are more likely to receive disability benefits. The baby boom generation is now between the ages 50 and 66 years old. These are prime disability years. The current wave of disability applications will dramatically fall when these same individuals reach full retirement age. Additionally, the overall number of individuals eligible for Social Security disability significantly increased when women joined our country’s workforce in the 1970s. These women are now eligible for disability benefits after years of paying payroll taxes. Conversely, the increase in disability applications is not due to illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants cannot apply or receive for disability benefits because they don’t have a valid Social Security Number.
The Social Security program does not liberally award disability benefits. Former Social Security Commissioner, Michael Astrue, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, has repeatedly defended the disability program’s eligibility requirements. Further, only 40% of all disability applicants are ultimately awarded benefits. Among this 40%, many must rely on family, friends and charities to survive through years of administrative appeals.
Disability benefits do not provide a windfall. Disability benefits alone will not likely keep a typical family above the poverty line. The nationwide average disability benefit paid to an individual is $13,000 per year. This average is even lower in low wage states, such as South Carolina. And an individual receiving disability is generally not expected to live long. Among individuals receiving disability benefits, one in five of the male beneficiaries, and one in seven of the female beneficiaries, will pass away within five years of obtaining their disability benefits.
In spite of the strictness of the program, there is a widespread perception that loafers and indolent people abuse the system. Part of this perception may be due to the fact that many disabled individuals are not in wheelchairs or bedridden. The general public may even witness disabled individuals occasionally attempting normal daily living activities. Disabling medical handicaps, generally speaking, do not render people non-ambulatory or completely bedridden. The general legal standard is that a person must be unable to work a regular and consistent basis. The legal standard is not that the person must be bedridden all day, or unable to visit a supermarket, or unable to attend church, or be unable cut their grass once a week.
The disability program not only helps the disabled, but also their families and their local communities. Most people don’t want their psychotic brother-in-law sleeping on their sofa. Most communities can’t afford to provide social services to residents who can no longer work. Many people live paycheck to paycheck and will need to draw on their federal disability insurance benefits when an unforeseen illness or accident occurs. Otherwise, their misfortune becomes the burden of you, their family and their local community.
We hope Americans who care about our quality of life will get behind the Social Security Administration’s disability programs, will stop judging people who have worked to earn eligibility for this public benefit, and will recognize the misfortune of needing the meager check that disability benefits provide.