The Social Security Administration (SSA) asks whether it should change the way it considers vocational factors — older age, limited education, and lack of transferable skills — in deciding applicants’ eligibility for Social Security Disability Insurance (DI). At SSA’s National Disability Forum today, I explained that DI’s eligibility criteria are already quite stringent and SSA should be cautious in revising them.
Age, education, and skills matter. By law, DI applicants must have a severe and long-lasting medical impairment; even then, they’re expected to switch to other work — even in another field or at lower pay — if they’re able, considering their age, education, and work experience. SSA uses vocational criteria detailed in regulation to weigh whether applicants can make such a switch. A back problem that wouldn’t end the career of an economist or journalist, for example, might be career-ending for a worker who never went to college and has always done manual labor. DI receipt is most prevalent among older workers with limited education. (See figure.)
Tightening DI rules further would mean hardship for rejected applicants and would disproportionately affect minorities and people with low earnings and less education, who are more likely to apply for DI.