The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.
The big idea
More than half of U.S. adults over the age of 50 with work-limiting disabilities – likely over 1.3 million people – do not receive the Social Security disability benefits they may need, according to new peer-reviewed research I conducted. In addition, those who do receive benefits are unlikely getting 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 hinges on financial need. Their shared goal is to ensure that people with work-limiting disabilities are able to 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 actually receive the aid.
To learn if that is true for the disability programs, I analyzed data over time from a long-running survey of adults older than age 50 called the Health and Retirement Study. The survey included information on disabilities and finances for tens of thousands of people from across the country and was linked to disability benefit records from the Social Security Administration. As the disability programs primarily serve those in their working years, I only looked at people who hadn’t yet hit the full retirement age.
The data showed that the share of people with substantial work-limiting disabilities who received Disability Insurance, Supplemental Security Income benefits or both rose from 32% in 1998 to 47% in 2016, which was the last year the data was available. This is just a little above the average among 27 high-income countries I compared the data with.
Using the most recent Census data, I estimate that more than half of those with work-limiting disabilities between the ages of 50-64 — about 1.35 million people — likely need these benefits but aren’t getting them.
I also examined the generosity of disability benefits in the U.S. by using regression analysis, a statistical tool that allowed me to compare the relationship between multiple variables. This helped me identify whether disability benefit recipients experience greater difficulty achieving financial security compared with adults who are not on benefits but have similar social and demographic backgrounds.
I found that those receiving benefits, and particularly Supplemental Security Income, struggled more and experienced less financial security than their peers.
Why it matters
Nearly a quarter of U.S. adults who head a household will report a severe disability that limits their ability to work at some point in their lives.
Many will look for financial support from Social Security’s 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 average 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 well over 1 million people with disabilities who face substantial barriers to employment are not getting the assistance they need. But what’s more, even those who receive benefits are likely not getting enough. Past 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 still isn’t known
This research looked at data from 2016 and earlier, but a lot has changed since then.
Chronic understaffing at benefit offices — long-running but worse since the COVID-19 pandemic began — are making benefits harder to get at a time of growing need. An estimated 500,000 people are experiencing disabilities as a result of long COVID. And those experiencing it report having even more trouble receiving benefits.
So the problem is probably worse today.
Zachary Morris, Assistant Professor of Social Welfare, Stony Brook University (The State University of New York)