Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) aids people who, because of a severe medical impairment, can no longer support themselves by working — a catastrophe that can happen to anyone. Contrary to uninformed claims, DI eligibility criteria are stringent:
SSA weeds out applicants who are technically disqualified (chiefly because they lack insured status) and sends the rest to each state’s disability determination service (DDS) for medical evaluation. If denied there, the applicant may appeal. Typical processing times at the DDS level are three to four months, and processing times at the appeal (hearing) level typically exceed one year. Ultimately, fewer than 40 percent of 2009-2011 applicants (including those that don’t pass initial screening) were awarded benefits (see graph) — and there’s evidence that the rate has fallen since then.
DI recipients are subject to periodic “continuing disability reviews” to verify that they are still disabled. Those reviews save about $10 in benefits for each $1 they cost. Nevertheless, congressional parsimony has hampered SSA’s ability to conduct these reviews on schedule.
In short, applying for DI requires most workers to go without a paycheck for many months in order to seek a benefit that’ll replace (on average) about half of their past earnings, with a big risk that they’ll be rejected, and — if they succeed — regular reviews to ensure that they remain eligible. (Also, DI recipients qualify for Medicare, but only after a two-year wait.) Those aren’t features of a lax program.