Demographics linked to Social Security Disability Insurance numbers

While a high number of Americans are receiving disability benefits, increases in population and changes to the workforce are the main culprits.

Social Security Disability Insurance is an earned benefit. Only those who have paid into the system for a long enough period of time through payroll or self employment taxes are eligible for SSDI benefits.

SSDI is also only available to those who are seriously disabled - those who lack the ability to pursue any "substantial gainful activity" and whose physical or mental impairment is expected to keep them from working for at least a year. Most of those who apply for SSDI are denied.

Despite SSDI being an earned benefit that is available only to those who can prove they are suffering from severe disabilities, there has been a growing perception in recent years that too many people are becoming dependent on SSDI benefits. However, a closer look shows that SSDI benefits are not being handed out to unqualified individuals, but that demographic changes account for increases in the number of SSDI beneficiaries.

Higher population, more women in the workforce

In raw numbers, it is true that there are more people receiving SSDI benefits now than there have been historically. Beginning in the early 1990s, the number of SSDI beneficiaries began a steady climb. From 2004 to last year alone, the number of SSDI beneficiaries increased from 7.9 million to 11 million, with payouts totaling $78.2 billion and $140 billion in 2004 and 2013, respectively.

But, in this same time period, the approval rate for SSDI claims plummeted. In fact, the SSDI approval rate is currently the lowest it has been in four decades. What explains this discrepancy?

Risk of disability among workers peaks in the 50 to 64 age group. An overall swell in population is currently in or about to enter this high risk time of life as baby boomers and their children age. Add to that the fact that Social Security recently increased full retirement age to 66, and it means a high proportion of the overall working population is at peak risk of disability.

In addition to a higher overall population and the ratcheting up of the retirement age, the increased participation of women in the labor force accounts for much of the growth in the SSDI system. In the 1970s and 1980s, women began to enter the labor market in droves, increasing the overall number of workers in America. Now the bubble in worker population created when women began to take advantage of increased work opportunities is beginning to affect the SSDI system, as some of the earliest women to enter the workforce reach ages in which disability risk increases.

Women not only account for a larger labor force, they are also more likely to suffer a disability than their male counterparts. According to the CDC, arthritis, the most common disabling condition among adult Americans, is twice as likely to affect women. Between 1999 and 2009, the Social Security Administration saw a 42 percent increase in disability applications for men, compare to a 72 percent increase for women.

Get SSDI benefits with help from an attorney

The SSDI system is indeed strained. But, the funding issues are not entirely unexpected, and Congress can offset them easily with a temporary increase to the proportion of payroll taxes designated to disability insurance.

If you are suffering from a disability, do not feel like you are a drain on the system. You have earned your benefits, and bear no responsibility for lawmakers' failure to take into account demographic trends. Talk to a Social Security Disability attorney if your claim has been denied or if you otherwise need help pursuing SSDI benefits.

Keywords: disability, benefits, Social Security