By Jeffrey Freedman
Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), which has been in existence for the past 56 years, is coming under criticism because of a recent sharp increase in the number of workers receiving benefits. Like other parts of our social safety net, SSDI has become a target for many politicians, who place the blame for the growth in the program on the extended period of high unemployment.
While it is true the rolls of those receiving SSDI benefits have grown (85,000 workers began receiving benefits in June) the increases cannot be attributed to individuals turning to SSDI when they can't find a job. There are a number of causes, the primary one being the aging of baby boomers.
When SSDI began, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 16.9 percent of the U.S. population was between the ages of 45 and 60. Today that number is 26.4 percent. It is inevitable that as people age, health problems increase and more of the workforce is affected by injuries or illnesses that make it impossible to continue to work.
Another factor is the presence of women in the workplace. In 2010 more than 70 percent of women were eligible to receive SSDI benefits, where in the 1930s, only about 25 percent of women were in the work force, and many of these women held jobs (such as domestics) that did not enable them to contribute to Social Security. Claimants can receive benefits only if they have contributed throughout the years they have worked, and the benefits they are eligible to receive are only commensurate with the amount they have contributed to the program.
In Western New York, it takes an average of two years after the initial application for an individual to begin receiving benefits. Additionally, the average monthly benefit is $1,111, far below what most people would earn if they were able to work. Obtaining SSDI benefits is challenging for most applicants, and the benefits they ultimately receive provide only a minimal standard of living.
Our SSDI program was founded to provide a minimal income for those who can no longer work at any gainful employment due to physical or mental limitations. While it is true SSDI is undergoing a growth spurt, it is not due to people "milking" the system; it is due to legitimate changes in our population, primarily aging. This is not the time to consider dismantling a program that is one of our most basic social safety nets.
Jeffrey Freedman serves on the New York State Bar Association and Town of Amherst disability committees, is former chairman of the Erie County Bar Association Disability Committee and has assisted more than 15,000 clients with a variety of disability matters.