Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) was provisioned under title II of the Social Security Act, and is granted to people who have worked before and have either become insured for benefits, or have been determined to be disabled by the Social Security Administration (SSA). For a person to be approved for and receive social security benefits, they must not be working and earning more than the administration's set substantial gainful earning limit, which fluctuates.
Social Security Insurance (SSI) is another program that is administered by the SSA. SSI is a need-based program; the earnings limitations that apply to SSDI also apply to SSI, although the SSI program is different because there is an asset limitation of two-thousand dollars placed on persons who are in the program. 'Assets,' are items that are not considered essential for daily use and living. People on SSI who cross the administration's asset line become ineligible for the SSI program.
Interestingly, people with different forms of disabilities have the potential to apply for either program, either SSDI or SSI. The determination as to which benefit is not up to the person who applies. When a person applies for disability at their local social security office, it is the Social Security Administration that will decide whether the person is insured for SSDI, or whether they must apply for SSI instead.
The SSI program was enacted in the year 1972 and started paying benefits in 1974. The program replaced federal-state programs of Aid to the Blind, Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled, and Old-Age Assistance. Since then, the program has undergone changes which were not anticipated by Congress. Additional programs have been enacted or amended since then that impact the same populations of people, while aspects of the SSI program have not changed. Thirty-five years have passed, and a re-examination of the SSI program is needed.
Abt Associates is working with Congress and the Social Security Administration as a part of this effort. A report is due from Abt Associates at some point in the year 2011. Congress should consider it's goals in relation to the SSI program, in particular what an SSI check purchases today while comparing it with what Congress intends it to buy. Changes to the program should avoid additional complexity, reducing it if possible. Congress should also make note of the fact that people with disabilities have been living in poverty on both the SSDI and SSI programs.
When Congress established the SSI program, they viewed it as a program for seniors because they were the biggest portion of the federal and state programs it was replacing. At the time, estimates by the administration indicated that the number of SSI beneficiaries with disabilities would grow, yet the numbers of people who were aging on the program would grow at an even larger rate. By the year 1982, the numbers of people under the age of sixty-five on SSI had equaled the number of those over the age of sixty-five on the program. At this time, there are nearly three-times as many people with disabilities on SSI under the age of sixty-five as there are people over the age of sixty five.
There is a great need to re-examine the benefit levels for households with more than one person on the SSI program. The asset limitation and excluded amounts of income are also outdated. As the population of people with disabilities and their use of the SSI and SSDI programs has changed, so has the realities of the Social Security Administration. An undue burden is being placed on people with disabilities, as well as society, through outdated policies and practices via the Social Security Administration, which is keeping people with disabilities in poverty unnecessarily.
The original legislation in regards to social security benefits set payments at $130 per month for each person in the year 1972. The Ways and Means Committee stated, "The benefit payable to a couple is smaller than the combined benefits payable to two individuals in order to take account of the fact that two people living together can live more economically than if each lived alone." At the end of the year 1971, $130 was the average monthly benefit for a retired worker under the Social Security retirement benefits program. The amount allotted for a couple was set at $195, one-and-a-half times that of a single person. The practice of allotting one-and-a-half the amount of a single person to couple continued, with only a few states paying couples twice the rate of an individual.
In the decades that have elapsed since the launch of the social security programs there has been a great deal of research done in relation to the needs of low-income families and individuals. The year 1995 found the National Research Council (NRC) issuing a report through its Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance titled, 'Measuring Poverty: A New Approach.' The Panel examined what an appropriate measure of poverty should be for an individual, deciding that once the individual threshold was established, the next challenge would be to develop measures for households.
The panel decided that it would not be appropriate to just multiply the individual measure by the number of people in a particular household. A two-member family, as an example, requires less than twice as much income as a single person because of economies of scale such as shared housing expenses and utilities. While the needs of a household do grow with each additional member, the panel found, they are not in direct proportion to the number of people within the household.
What the NRC's Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance accomplished was the creation of an equivalence scale. An equivalence scale indicates the increase in dollars a particular household of a particular size needs when compared to an individual in order to maintain an equivalent standard of living as an individual. The Panel recommended an equivalence scale to adjust family poverty thresholds to represent equivalent amounts of money for various family types. What this suggested is that a similar approach could be taken with the Social Security Administration's programs.
In the year 2009, America is struggling with the concept of marriage in different regards. People with disabilities who are on the SSI program find that they are unable to get married without risking their benefit amount. People who are gay, lesbian, or transgender find themselves unable to get married in many states. Yet the SSA holds no bias from a financial perspective in this regard. The way the SSI program treats married couples gives beneficiaries an incentive to remain unmarried, giving couples who are married an incentive to get divorced. Stories have appeared of couples even presenting themselves as living separately in order to receive two full SSI financial benefits.
Instead of reaching for the concepts of equality, inclusion, and empowerment of people with disabilities, Congress and the Social Security Administration continue to pursue notions of, 'equivalence scales,' as applied to households of all sizes and compositions. At this time, couples who are on SSI and are legally married, or consider themselves to be so, and live together are eligible for three-fourths of a full benefit amount each. Single adult SSI beneficiaries are eligible for full SSI benefits, which still places them in poverty, whether they live together or not.
The rules associated with the Social Security Administration were deemed wise as the administration was created, and perhaps they were. In the decades that have passed, the numbers of people with disabilities making use of the programs the SSA offers has risen dramatically. The population of people with disabilities who require the services of the SSA today no longer fit into the two programs provisioned under the Social Security Act.
Both SSDI and SSI have become maintenance programs, unworthy of the capabilities of people with disabilities. Neither program respects the needs for equality and inclusion of greater than one-fifth of America's citizens. As the debates rage in America over the rapidly rising costs related to the Social Security Administration's programs, there is also an incredible opportunity to change the administration into one program. The services offered to people with disabilities and seniors have experienced change before.
Instead of two disability programs with two sets of rules associated with them, one program might be offered. The new program could offer benefits of $1,500 a month with health care benefits. Included in the program would be the opportunity for part or full-time employment, with support from a number of government rehabilitation agencies and employment organizations. Instead of threatening people with disabilities with the loss of benefits should they make more than a certain amount, benefits would always remain an option should disability require them. Private rehabilitation and disability employment organizations, as well as non-profit organizations would also be involved, building support for people with disabilities and the communities in which they live.
No more poverty-enhancing, 'equivalence scales.' No more refusal to support the equality and inclusion of greater than one-fifth of our nation's citizens. People with disabilities would find themselves as active, participating, contributing, taxpaying members of society. The fears of losing base-support benefits would be removed. No more, 'witch hunt,' perspectives on the part of the SSA in regards to who is married and who is not. No more counting of assets. One can hope that as the Social Security Administration pursues it's self-review, it understands that things such as, 'equivalence scales,' marriage destruction and definition, poverty, asset limitation, lack of support for the inclusion of people with disabilities in society, and destruction of equality, are no longer acceptable in today's America.
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