What Do You Do if You’re Poor and Disabled?

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) provide modest but critical income support for individuals with a medical impairment that limits them from work and helps cover the additional costs of disability that are beyond the scope of health insurance, such as accessible housing, or prepared meals. SSDI is a social insurance program earned by workers based on their employment history, while SSI serves poor families, including caregivers for children with significant disabilities.

Recently, National Public Radio (NPR) ran a series about federal disability programs that largely reinforce myths and stereotypes about the programs and the people who access them.

The question is often asked: “If you can’t do your job because of your disability, why don’t you just find another job that may accommodate you?”  Sure, it sounds like a logical question, but the reality of finding another job may be more complicated, especially when you take into consideration the demographics of those in areas where disability rates are high. Only 6% of the nation’s working age population receive SSDI or SSI, but in some Appalachian and southern states (one of which is highlighted in the NPR story) more than 10% of the working-age population are beneficiaries of the programs.

One of the most powerful contributors to this disparity among states is that those with higher rates of disability beneficiaries are also states with less-educated people whose physical or mental impairment(s) are so severe that it prevents them from doing their previous work.  Many people in this situation are less able to adapt to other employment than more highly educated people may be. These individuals are often also older workers who may have spent much of their lives in physically demanding work environments. A highly educated courtroom judge with a disability, for instance, may have more opportunities in finding a less-physically intensive work environment with good health benefits and a family-sustaining wage than a 56-year-old man with a high school degree who has spent all of his working years in a mill.

The NPR series also perpetuates the misconception that disability recipients are also increasing because people are transitioning from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to SSI or SSDI. Since massive reforms in 1996, there has been a decline in TANF enrollment; however there is no evidence of a large-scale shift from TANF to disability programs. SSI and SSDI serve a different purpose than TANF and have different eligibility requirements which don’t automatically make an individual coming off of one program eligible for another. While some individuals may move from TANF to SSI, many more fall into the gap in between the programs – not disabled enough to qualify for disability benefits, but with too many limitations to keep a job or even meet the TANF participation requirements.

Much of the skepticism around the growth of disability programs suggest that there are people who are receiving benefits who shouldn’t be. However, less than 40% of adult applicants are approved under strict disability standards. Yes, it’s true that enrollment in disability programs has increased, but much of it is because of shifting demographics. Our baby boomer generation is aging into their high disability years and is contributing to the growth of disability cases. In addition, more women are now qualified for disability benefits. SSDI is only provided to workers who have contributed enough via payroll taxes to be covered, and many more women with disabilities are eligible for the program than previous generations of women that had not contributed sufficiently through participation in the workforce.

SSI and SSDI are vital programs for individuals and families across the country who have been able to care for family members in their homes because of the modest support-a perspective not reflected in the NPR story-and we must continue to work toward strengthening these disability programs.