Social Security may be failing over a million people with disabilities, and COVID-19 is making the problem worse

Conor here: Interesting to read this along with all the gnashing of teeth from capital about labor shortages. The Brookings Institution recently estimated that “the labor force is about 900,000 smaller than might be expected, primarily due to COVID-19-related deaths and reduced immigration.” Brookings concluded with the following:

Ultimately, the amount of goods and services the US produces will likely have to adjust to align with a smaller workforce. However, such challenges with respect to the size of the labor force would be mitigated if policies and other structural changes increased participation rates.

By Zachary Morris, Assistant Professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Social Welfare, where he researches disability and health policy both in the US and abroad. Originally posted on The conversation.

More than half of American adults age 50 and older with work-limiting disabilities, probably more than 1.3 million people, are not receiving the Social Security disability benefits they may need, according to new peer-reviewed research that I did. Also, those who receive benefits are unlikely to get enough to make ends meet.

The Social Security Administration operates two programs intended to provide benefits to people with disabilities: Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income, the latter of which is based on financial need. Their shared goal is to ensure that people with work-limiting disabilities can maintain a decent standard of living.

I think it’s fair to say that if a disability benefit is truly available to those who need it, then a large portion of people with work-limiting disabilities should get the help.

To find out if that’s true for disability programs, I analyzed data over time from a long-running survey of adults 50 and older called the Health and Retirement Study. The survey included disability and financial information for tens of thousands of people across the country and was linked to Social Security Administration disability benefit records. Since disability programs primarily serve people in their working years, I only looked at people who had not yet reached full retirement age.

The data showed that the proportion of people with substantial work-limiting disabilities who received Disability Insurance benefits, Supplemental Security Income, or both increased from 32% in 1998 to 47% in 2016, which was the last year for which the data they were available. This is only slightly above the average among the 27 high-income countries with which I compared the data.

Using the most recent census data, I estimate that more than half of people with work-limiting disabilities between the ages of 50 and 64 (about 1.35 million people) probably need these benefits, but don’t get them. .

I also examined the generosity of disability benefits in the US using regression analysis, a statistical tool that allowed me to compare the relationship between multiple variables. This helped me identify whether recipients of disability benefits experience greater difficulty in achieving financial security compared to adults who do not receive benefits but have similar demographic and social backgrounds.

I found that those receiving benefits, and particularly Supplemental Security Income, struggled more and experienced less financial security than their peers.

why does it matter

Nearly a quarter of American adults who head a household will report a severe disability that limits their ability to work at some point in their lives.

Many will seek financial support from Social Security disability programs, which together provide benefits to more than 12 million people in 2023.

The Disability Insurance program, established in 1956, provides benefits to those who meet a specific definition of disability and have paid Social Security payroll taxes. The median payment as of February 2023 was $1,686 per month.

The Supplemental Security Income program, established in 1972, pays cash benefits to adults and children who also meet the definition of disability and who have financial need. The maximum payment as of 2023 was $914, though some states supplement this with their own programs.

My research suggests that more than 1 million people with disabilities who face substantial barriers to employment do not receive the assistance they need. But what’s more, even those who receive benefits are likely not getting enough. Previous research shows that more than 20% of disability insurance recipients and 52% of Supplemental Security Income recipients live in poverty despite receiving these benefits.

What is not yet known

This research looked at data from 2016 and earlier, but a lot has changed since then.

Chronic staff shortages in benefits offices, longstanding but worse since the COVID-19 pandemic began, are making it harder to get benefits at a time of growing need. An estimated 500,000 people are experiencing disabilities as a result of the long COVID. And those who do experience it report having even more trouble receiving benefits.

So the problem is probably worse today.

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