Setting the Record Straight about Social Security Disability Benefits

new_ssa_6The Social Security Disability benefit system is often negatively depicted by politicians and media coverage. Those of us with intimate knowledge of the system are surprised how much misinformation is contained within the criticism. Individuals who are disabled from work are often portrayed as “takers” who would rather collect benefits than find a job. To set the record straight, the Social Security Administration recently issued a bulletin* that contains six essential facts about disability benefits, including the following:


  1. Social Security Disability benefits are paid for by workers’ Social Security taxes on their earnings. Disability benefits are a type of insurance which is earned by working. When individuals are unable to work because of a disability, they and their dependents are able to replace, but only partially, lost earnings with disability benefits.
  2. The Social Security Act has very strict definitions of disability. Unlike workers’ compensation or state disability benefits, Social Security disability does not provide partial or temporary benefits for short term disabilities. Rather, an individual must show that he or she is unable to work for at least one year or longer due to severe medical conditions. These medical conditions must preclude returning to past work or being trained for a different job or occupation. Recipients of Social Security disability benefits are three times more likely to die in a year as compared to the general population of the same age.
  3. Disability cannot be predicted and can affect anyone at any age. Fifty six million people in the US are disabled and one in ten, or thirty six million are considered severely disabled. Every day, thousands of young Americans are injured or killed by trauma, and many others develop serious medical conditions, such as cancer or mental illness. Disability benefits provide crucial income support for those who are unable to work due to a disability that arises before retirement age.
  4. Monthly Social Security benefits are modest. Disability beneficiaries do not get rich on their benefits payments. In 2014, the average monthly disability payment in the U.S. is $1,146, which translates to an annual benefit only slightly above the poverty level ($11,490). Yet these payments provide crucial support for basic living needs, such as housing and food, for those who are unable to work.
  5. As projected by experts for decades, the number of people who qualify for Social Security has increased. This increase in beneficiaries over the last several years has been predicted by experts based on a) the number of baby boomers aging in the workforce between 1990 and 2011 and b) the increase in the number of women who entered the workforce in the past several decades and earned enough work credits to qualify for benefits if they become disabled. Even though the number of beneficiaries has increased, only a small percentage of disabled Americans are collecting disability benefits. As the Baby Boomers age, it is known that their numbers will cease receiving disability benefits in the next years as they transition to the retirement rolls.
  6. Social Security strictly enforces the rules against fraud. SSA studies have shown that actual fraud incidence is extremely rare; a fraction of one percent of cases. SSA has long had programs to investigate, detect and even prosecute fraud.

*Social Security Administration, SSA Publication No. 05-10560 (May 2014).

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