Social Security: The Safety Net that Keeps Americans Afloat

John Miller never much thought about the possibility that he might one day become disabled; he was too busy building and renovating homes throughout suburban Washington, D.C. For 40 years, Miller (a pseudonym to protect his privacy) worked long days with his brother – until an unexpected illness and injury struck.

Like thousands of American workers who find themselves sidelined by illness or injury, Miller could no longer work. As in many jobs, if you don’t work, you don’t earn. Miller soon found himself in dire straits, both financially and in terms of his health. He had never accepted any kind of public assistance, but now he desperately needed help just to pay basic living expenses.

Miller knew nothing about Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), the federal program that provides financial support to millions of Americans unable to work because of injury or chronic illness. Learning about the program and securing benefits took months, but now Miller knows his monthly SSDI benefits will at least help him put food on the table.

“My benefits check is something I can count on every month,” he says. “I know that I’ll be able to eat and that I’ll be able to stay in my house for another 30 days.”

Established in 1956, SSDI is an important part of our nation’s Social Security system for disabled workers, retirees, dependents and survivors. Funded through payroll taxes, SSDI provides vital financial support for Americans with severe disabilities and chronic health conditions. Workers earn coverage for SSDI and other Social Security benefits through payroll tax contributions, and may only become eligible for benefits if they have earned coverage and their health prevents them from working.

Currently about 8 million Americans receive SSDI benefits. While the number of people receiving SSDI benefits has risen recently, the increase was expected, and experts say that influx will level off soon. Baby boomers reaching the disability-prone years of their 50s and 60s account for much of the increase. The growing number of women in the workforce also accounts for much of the rise, as they are now eligible for benefits in greater numbers than ever before. The rise in retirement age has also contributed to the increase.

Benefits are modest. On average, SSDI pays individuals just $1,132 a month and families just $1,919 a month. The requirements to qualify for benefits are very strict. Applicants must present extensive medical proof of significant disability. In fact, qualifying disabilities are so severe that about one in five men and one in six women receiving SSDI will die within five years of receiving benefits, and those eligible for benefits are three times more likely to die than other people their age, according to Kathy Ruffing of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Applying for SSDI benefits is a complex process, especially for people who are unfamiliar with how the system works or who are already dealing with significant illness or injury and the emotional and financial strain that accompanies poor health. Many people find that getting help from a disability advocate or lawyer can help ease the process and relieve some of the stress.

Securing approval for SSDI benefits took Miller 35 months. His experience is far from unique. Miller’s disability meant that after spending his entire career taking care of the homes of others, he wasn’t even able to perform needed maintenance on his own home. After nearly three years of waiting, he is finally able to use the benefits he earned while working on other peoples’ homes, to hire someone to repair his own home. “I’d love to go out there today and work,” he says. “Now I have to get someone else to do the work on my house that I had done for years.”  For more, see