Economic opportunity for all is the cornerstone of the American dream. There are many individuals, however, who face obstacles in reaching this opportunity because of their disability. These individuals have just as strong a desire to be self-sufficient as individuals without disabilities, but desire alone is not enough; the labor force participation rate for people with disabilities is just over 20 percent, compared to nearly 70 percent for people without disabilities.
One avenue for self-empowerment is the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program. Funded by workers’ payroll taxes, SSDI provides monthly income and other benefits, including health care insurance, when an illness or injury stops someone from working for 12 months or longer. SSDI allows individuals to maintain their independence and focus on recovery, with the hope of being able to re-enter the work force. Unfortunately, former workers with disabilities face bureaucratic barriers to getting these benefits.
One barrier is particularly concerning: a massive backlog of nearly 1.1 million people waiting for a Social Security Disability Insurance hearing. After up to a year in the initial processes, applicants for disability benefits have to wait an average of 596 days for a hearing decision from an administrative law judge to learn if they will receive SSDI benefits. This backlog is hurting families and making it extremely difficult for recently disabled former workers to stabilize their lives and, if possible, return to work.
While waiting for a SSDI hearing, which could be as long as three years, a former worker could lose their house, health insurance, savings and retirement funds. While this is happening, is it really likely that this individual can focus on recovery and getting back to work?
Morale and hope fade as these individuals wait. This difficult and frustrating process makes it next to impossible for most applicants to focus on getting better or working again. Ultimately, about half of those subjected to this delay will be deemed eligible to receive benefits. The bureaucratic barriers causing this backlog are not only a burden, they are inhuman. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has estimated that 8,600 people died in fiscal 2016 while waiting for a disability hearing.
Worse yet, this backlog is not a surprise. The SSA and Congress saw it coming long ago, but took only tepid steps to prevent the backlog from growing larger and harming Americans with disabilities and their families.