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Budget Agreement Funding Could Reduce Social Security Disability Backlog

The bipartisan agreement to raise the caps on discretionary spending in 2018 and 2019 reportedly calls for higher funding for the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) operating budget, which is starved for resources after years of cuts, to improve customer service. SSA’s budget shrank by 11 percent between 2010 and 2017, after adjusting for inflation — even as SSA’s workload grew as baby boomers reached their peak years for retirement and disability. When lawmakers write agency funding bills based on the agreement, they need to fulfill their commitment and provide SSA with a significant increase to undo the damage from those cuts.

One consequence of the cuts is that over 1 million people await a final decision on their application for Social Security Disability Insurance — after paying into Social Security their entire career — or their application for Supplemental Security Income disability benefits. They wait an average of nearly two years for decisions on their appeals, a record delay.

The workers affected by the SSA backlog, who have appealed SSA’s rejection of their initial disability application, come from all walks of life and all over the country, from small-town Minnesota to New York City:

  • The backlog hurts taxpayers who have worked for decades. In California, the Orange County Register profiled a 62-year-old disabled worker who paid into Social Security since he was 15; six years after a catastrophic workplace accident and after exhausting his employer’s disability benefits, he’s still awaiting a decision. An Ohio woman with 35 years of uninterrupted employment has already waited for two years for a final decision and will likely have to wait another year, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. DI beneficiaries have extensive work histories: the average beneficiary has 22 years of work experience, and those disabled at age 50 or later average more than 30 years of work.
  • Some wait three years or more. Florida has some of the nation’s longest backlogs, the Tampa Bay Times reports. Wait times for hearings in Miami and Tampa are 725 and 705 days, respectively. And that’s on top of the initial application phase, meaning many Floridians must wait three years for a final decision. Such long waits aren’t unique to Florida: a Tennessee woman who worked 41 years as a nurse has waited two years for a decision and likely has another year and a half before her hearing, according to News Channel 5.
  • Long waits can cause financial ruin and family breakdown. In Illinois, a woman who has endured 25 orthopedic surgeries and has waited for a hearing since October 2016 was forced to declare bankruptcy, the Daily Herald reports. In Texas, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that many workers awaiting a decision have used up their savings and can’t afford car payments, mortgages, electricity, or groceries. In Mississippi, the Washington Post reports that residents face serious hardships as they wait: “They usually lose the car first, then the house. Next comes bankruptcy. Stresses accrue, marriages fracture, pains and illnesses mount, and some die right before their hearings, when the wait is worst.”
  • Each year, thousands of applicants die awaiting a decision. Oklahoma resident Chris Shuler’s hearing took place three years after his initial application and four months after his death, CBS News reports. His widow attended on his behalf, where the judge told her his case would have been a “no-brainer.” Roughly 10,000 people died last year while awaiting a decision, according to the Washington Post.

The harm from persistent underfunding of SSA extends beyond backlogged applicants for Social Security Disability Insurance. As workloads and costs grow and budgets shrink, SSA’s service has worsened by nearly every measure, from serving clients in SSA field offices to answering phone calls. The new budget agreement offers an opportunity to increase SSA’s operating budget and reverse some of this damage.