With all of the debate about cutting government programs to reduce the deficit, it is easily to fall into the trap of thinking that the Social Security Disability program is the largest now that it has ever been. While it may be true that children’s SSI benefit awards are at an all-time high, adult benefits peaked in the early 1990s. Shortly thereafter, the legislature passed legislation that made it more difficult for noncitizens to obtain SSI, and eliminated drug addiction and alcoholism from the listings as basis for finding a person disabled. This resulted in a large increase in denials, especially for SSI. Additionally, the legislature overturned a court ruling which allowed for more findings of disability in children. Further, legislation killed the individualized function test, and limited the applicability of mental disorders disability. This legislation had an intense impact on SSD and SSI cases, and levels of awards dropped significantly. The rates of approval been slowly recovering ever since.
Other policy factors impacting the level at which applications are granted have been changes in the listings, such as the elimination of obesity. Claims rose again when the retirement age was raised to 67, as many people in their early 60s who were eligible for disability had previously been taking retirement benefits instead. Prior to 1983 recognition of mental illnesses, the primary mental disability receiving benefits was mental retardation. Many of these policies had significant effect whether they were intended to or not. The one area where the SSA has attempted to create policy for the purpose of changing behavior though, has largely fallen flat.
The SSA has, since the 1960s, been focused on getting people back to work in order to increase successful exits from the program and limit re-entry. These have included trial work periods not affecting benefits, providing re-applicants a waiver on the Medicaid waiting period, and others. Unfortunately, this has largely not been successful. In my experience, most people on SSD or SSI would really just like to be healthy enough to get back to work. This would tend to imply that these programs are ineffective not because people are lazy, but because they do not meet the needs of disabled people. Perhaps they are not realistic solutions and may require for example, a more gradual wean off benefits or more workplace support. Not surprisingly, the economy and disability discrimination may also play a role here.
So what does this all mean for you? If you are thinking about applying, or your application has been recently denied upcoming policy changes could really affect your chances of being successful. The trend seems to be towards limiting the awards by legislation followed by ALJ’s expanding the definitions in small ways until awards rise to the level they come to the attention of Congress again. This seems to reflect a tendency that I have noticed even in my own practice. Often claims don’t seem very strong on paper, which is why many initial applications get denied. However, then when clients come into our office it is clear their disability, which did not seem so severe on paper, has a major effect on their life. This is where having the benefit of an ALJ hearing comes in. We can work with you to present the most compelling argument why your application should be granted in a memo to the Judge. Then, we will see the Judge in person and have the opportunity to describe all the ways your disability prevents you from working. This is why, whenever possible, our office would rather wait and have an in person hearing with the ALJ than schedule an earlier video conference. The above research, and our record, supports this theory that it is much harder to turn down a claim once the Judge has met you than on paper.