As such, there are a lot of accusations floating around that many people are “playing the system” and “weaseling” more money out of the SSA then they deserve. But in truth, many studies show just the opposite.
For one thing, the SSA only approves 4 out of every 10 applicants. The application process is one of the strictest out of any country with similar benefits. Beneficiaries have severe impairments and illnesses like cancers, congestive heart failure, kidney failure, multiple sclerosis, emphysema, and severe mental illness. Medical evidence is the cornerstone of the disability determination process, and in most cases, medical evidence from multiple medical professionals is required to establish eligibility.
Fraud only accounts for less than 1% of all disability payments made. Of course in a perfect world this number would be zero, but this is a truly astonishing percentage based on the number of stories abound in the media.
In fact, we are actually awarding less than ever. Award rates have declined significantly during the recent economic downturn, from 39 percent in FY 2007 to just 33 percent in FY 2011, suggesting that applicants for benefits who did not meet Social Security’s strict disability standard were screened out. A recent study by the agency’s watchdog looked at the 11 highest-unemployment states and found that while application rates had increased, award rates had dropped in all of them.
While Social Security disability benefits are modest, they have a powerful impact. Poverty rates are significantly higher for individuals with significant disabilities but who do not receive Disability Insurance, compared with individuals who have been receiving benefits for at least five years. Likewise, Supplemental Security income makes it possible for 3.4 million Americans to avoid poverty, and lifts millions more out of deep poverty (defined as half the federal poverty level).
In short, we probably shouldn’t be so afraid about fraud, and support the program a bit more. After all, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just one in three private sector workers have access to employer-provided long-term disability insurance, and plans are often less adequate than Social Security. Access is especially limited for low-wage workers—only 7 percent of workers making under $12 an hour have employer-provided plans. This means that someday, you too may need the benefits that SSA provides. And when you do, you may need help to apply and receive your benefits. Keep this in mind when you want to be critical of the program.