How Social Security Disability actually works

Christian Patterson
Underground Mall

One of the most common targets of conservatives is ‘welfare’. They, of course, never get into specifics about how welfare works, which makes it impossible to refute their arguments, because most leftists don’t know how welfare programs work either. The debate goes like:

Side A: Welfare is when lazy people mooch off of us in order to get tvs, phones, and refrigerators!

Side B: No, welfare is when people in need are given things they need to survive.

Neither of these people are talking about welfare at all, they’re upholding the ideological underpinnings of their side. Without the specifics, there’s no way to properly describe, and then prescribe, solutions to welfare programs. I’m writing this to make clear some of those specifics, so leftists get a sense of how bad “welfare” benefits actually are, and how difficult is to qualify.

I’m not too familiar with most welfare programs myself. I don’t know much about Section 8, TANF, Veteran Disability programs, etc. I know a little about SNAP and Obamacare, but not much. I do, however, know a lot about Social Security Disability. I used to work at a Social Security Disability Law office. My job revolved around the specific qualifications and bureaucratic processes.

There are 5 types of Disability. The first three I’ll list are much less common than the other two, but use a lot of the same qualifications. There is:
1. Disabled Child Benefits
2. Disabled Adult Child Benefits
3. Disabled Widow’s Benefits
4. Supplemental Security Income
5. Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits

The first 2 are for parents who have a disabled child, and due to taking care of the child, are unable to work enough to gain substantial gainful activity (SGA — I will explain that later). The third program is for a disabled person whose spouse has died, leaving them without their spouse’s income that they depended on.

The fourth program is Supplemental Security Income (SSI). This is the program people mean when they’re referring to disability “welfare” that’s received by the poor.

The fifth program is Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits. This is abbreviated as SSD, SSDI, or DIB. This is the program for people who have a working history (they must have worked full-time 5 of the previous 10 years).

There are two requirements that people need to meet for all five programs. The first requirement is that you are disabled medically. I don’t have much insight into this because when you’re applying and going to a hearing with Social Security, they are mostly determining your medical disability, so it isn’t a subject that an administrative worker would deal with much.

The other requirement is you can’t work. You’re technically eligible for Social Security if you currently work, but only if you make less than SGA, which is around $1,100/month. If you make more than that, you’re instantly considered not “legally disabled”, even if you might be physically disabled. And, even though the hard cap of your monthly income is ~$1,100, if you work for any money, it could be used as evidence against you being considered disabled. For example, a judge could say that if you make $800 per month, it could be conceivable that you could make more.


To get SSI, you must not have more than $2,000 in assets. If you have $2,005 sitting in a bank account, you might as well withdraw some and stash it. You are allowed to own 1 home and 1 car, and these don’t count to the $2,000 total. If you had say, 2 cars, they would count the more expensive car towards the $2,000. If you own 2 housing properties, there’s no way to get SSI. Social Security isn’t that concerned about record collections, baseball cards or even your nice tv (much to the dismay of conservatives). Social Security are most concerned about bank accounts, investments, trusts, etc.

Once you start receiving SSI, it is limited at $775/month. The real awful thing about this is that (even though ‘supplemental’ is in the name) if you receive more than $775 from any governmentally recognized source (a legal employer or food stamps for example), it is actually deducted from your ~$775. In other words, $1,100 is what the United States government considers a substantial amount of money for one to live off of, but if you are incredibly poor (poorer than $2,000), than you don’t even receive what the government acknowledges as a living income.

Let’s say someone waits 2 years to receive disability (yes, it can and often does take that long), then they are entitled to back-due benefits for those 2 years in which they were waiting for a determination. You could even be entitled to, say, 5 years of back-due benefits, if it is a particularly long process, and/or, you claim your Alleged Onset Date (ie the day you first became disabled) was actually before you filed for Disability.

But, if you receive SSI, remember that you aren’t allowed to have more than $2,000 in assets at a time. So how do they do the back-due benefits in that case? You get your first check of back-due benefits, and it is capped at $2,000. You will then start receiving $775 (or less) per month. In 9 months, you get $2,000 more of your back-due benefits. Then, (if I remember correctly, but this is getting DEEP into Social Security law), 9 months after that, you are awarded the rest of your back-due benefits, but have to agree to spend it within a certain amount of time, as to not stay over the $2,000 limit.

To summarize: SSI is a welfare program for the disabled poor who haven’t consistently worked. In order to receive it, you must be poor — like, borderline homeless or actually homeless — because you must not have more than $2,000, excluding 1 car and 1 home. You must not be working enough to make a living. Once you qualify for SSI, you must remain undet the $2,000 limit, or you will be removed from the program. If you have another source of income, that is deducted from the $775/month you receive in SSI. Not only is SSI for the disabled poor, it is designed to keep the disabled poor extremely poor.


Most people know the other main type of Disability as ‘SSD’, sometimes ‘SSDI’ (Social Security Disability (Insurance). From my experience, most Social Security attorneys, judges, legal assistants etc, call it ‘DIB’ (Disability Insurance Benefits) amongst themselves. My guess is because SSI is Disability as well as SSD, so there’s inconsistencies in naming. Also, DIB is more clearly different than SSI in casual conversation. For this, I will call it SSD, simply because that’s what it’s called most often.

Social Security uses the same criteria to determine if someone is disabled as they do for both SSD and SSI. Unlike SSI, you could have more money than anyone else in the world, and still receive SSD. However, the unique characteristic of SSD is that you must have worked full-time 5 of the last 10 years.

With the work requirement of SSD, I conceptualize the difference like this: SSI is what you get if you are a) disabled and b) poor. You must stay poor if you are to receive SSI. SSD is what you get if you are a) disabled and b) have worked regularly. Another difference between SSI and SSD is that you receive more than $775/month on SSD, but the amount you receive fluctuates based on how much you ‘paid into Social Security’ — which is attorney-talk for ‘how much you were taxed’. The highest I had heard someone receiving from SSD was $2,100/month, but he was a highly skilled, union trade worker and withheld lots of his income to taxes as well.

The most common amounts I have seen for SSD is $1,000-$1,500, but it’s cryptic how much you’ll actually be awarded, because it’s based on algorithms with a lot of factors. One way to conceptualize Disability is that $775/month is the baseline that disabled people receive, but if you worked enough, then you receive a supplemental amount. The supplemental amount, practically speaking, is paying your taxes back to you.


There are a few main takeaways one can gather from Social Security Disability:

If you have never worked, or have not worked ‘enough’, then you will receive Disability that is not enough to survive off of. In fact, it’s several hundred dollars less per month than Social Security itself determines is a reasonable amount of money for someone to live off of.

If you have never worked, or not worked enough, not only will you make $775/month, but Social Security reserves the right to deduct your payments if they have documented income from other sources. If you are no longer extremely poor (like, if you have over $2,000), then you risk losing payments entirely.

If you have worked enough, you will receive more monthly money than the others, but the amount you receive is (for the most part) proportionate to the amount of money you made, with some other factors mixed in. If you have worked, they give you what you paid into taxes back to you in the form of Disability (this is why SSD is referred to as an ‘Insurance’ program).

The ultimate takeaway, however, is that getting on Social Security Disability, no matter what the program is, is a very long process. If you are seriously, indisputably disabled (and you have medical records to prove it), the earliest you can start receiving it is about 4–6 months. For most people, it takes about 2 years — occasionally less but usually more. Once you do start receiving it, the amount you receive is (for many people) FAR LESS than what someone makes if they worked full-time for the federal minimum wage.

All of this is to say: Social Security takes a prohibitively long time to obtain. My average estimate is you apply and wait 4-6 months to hear back from the Application phase. Only about 20% get approved here. You then wait 4-6 months again, for the Reconsideration phase, where only about 10% of applicants get approved. You then wait usually around a year for a Hearing, sometimes more depending on where you live. At the Hearing level, you have the best chance of winning, but it varies from judge to judge.

Not only does it take a prohibitively long time, but you have to fill out a lot of paperwork, at every step in the process, which is the only reason people get Social Security attorneys to begin with, because they’re not imperative.

Not only both of those things, but the criteria for being declared medically disabled by the government is esoteric and convoluted, and often bars people who would, by any pedestrian definition, be considered disabled.

And then the real impact: after all of that waiting, convoluted bureaucracies, and scrutiny, you finally get your notice of award in the mail! And then you learn, for all that work, you get an unlivable amount of money.

[Note: this is an updated version of a post that was originally on my Medium page on September 2017.]p

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