Do Some People “Choose” to Be Disabled?

Posted by Jeffrey Brown on Aug 2, 2010

Filed Under (Health Care, U.S. Fiscal Policy)

The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program is an important part of the social safety net in the U.S.  If ever there were a risk that ought to be insured, it is the possibility of experiencing a physical or mental disability that brings one’s working-life to an end.  Those of us that have loved ones who rely on the SSDI program as a major source of household income understand how important it can be to financially sustaining those who are unable to continue working.

But the program can also be criticized in many ways.  First, the backlog of cases is very high – meaning that those who are disabled must often a very long time – sometimes even years – before they receive their first check.  There has also been a tremendous rise in the SSDI program caseload, which is placing enormous financial strain on the program as well as on the Social Security Administration’s already stretched field offices.

Nearly all of these problems trace to one root cause – that there is no simple test for determining who is truly disabled, and who is just trying to pass themselves off as disabled so that they can receive monthly checks for the rest of their lives without working. 

I know, some of you are going to say, “who would possibly do that?”  Indeed, some are offended by the notion that any undeserving individual would attempt to “act” disabled when they are not. 

But let’s be honest.  If it were easy to determine who was disabled and who was not – if there were some simple and fool-proof blood test or lie-detector test – then there would be no need for a huge bureaucracy of SSA claims reps, no need for 50+ state disability determination units, no complex layers of case reconsiderations and appeals, no need for hundreds of Administrative Law Judges, and no delays in processing checks.  There would be no backlog of cases.  And, frankly, there would probably be a lot more willingness among the general public and elected officials to generously support the program. 

But it is not that easy.  When a person argues that their back pain or mental condition means that they will no longer be able to work, the law requires that Social Security determine whether the person is indeed unable to earn more than the “Substantial Gainful Activity” amount each month – not just in their prior job, but in any job.  They must also determine whether the disability is permanent and/or likely to result in their death.  No easy task.

Ultimately, however, it is an empirical question whether there are people who apply for benefits but do not truly qualify.  And economists have researched this topic for years.

One recent paper by researchers at Columbia University, the Social Security Administration and the Congressional Budget Office ( finds that “younger rejected mail applicants to the Disability Insurance (DI) program exhibit substantial labor force attachment.  Similarly, a significant fraction of rejected applicants with low-mortality impairments such as back pain and mental health problems is employed.” 

In other words, there are a lot of people who apply for SSDI benefits, thus explicitly claiming that they have a work-ending disability, who return to work after being rejected.  Pretty clear evidence that they were not actually disabled, at least according to the SSDI definition.  But they applied for benefits anyway.  Maybe they really are hurt, maybe they really think they deserve the benefits.  But the fact that they can work after being rejected indicates that they did not suffer a work-ending disability. 

And as long as it remains the case that non-disabled people apply for disability benefits, the disability determination process will continue to be difficult, complex, long and extremely frustrating for everyone involved.  Those who suffer the most are those who truly are disabled.

2 Responses to “Do Some People “Choose” to Be Disabled?”

  • FL says:

    The qualifications to meet the requirement of receiving benefits from SSDI is truly a controversial piece. I do not have any prior knowledge about this but I do think ambiguities can always occur in cases and in many ways. For example, age can play a significant role in the decision to award a medical vocational allowance, because this method of approval or denial tends to focus a lot on the applicants’ work history, and any usable skills he or she has acquired as a result of past employment. Older individuals have the upper hand when it comes to winning medical vocational allowances, because they are more likely to have skills that are outdated or no longer valued in the job market, and Social Security recognizes the fact that it may be more difficult for them to develop new skills or to simply start over again in a new field. In addition, there is the problem of age discrimination, but the fact is that older people have fewer employment options, so Social Security gives a lot of leeway to those 50 and older.

  • Bryan M says:

    This is in response to: “In other words, there are a lot of people who apply for SSDI benefits, thus explicitly claiming that they have a work-ending disability, who return to work after being rejected. Pretty clear evidence that they were not actually disabled, at least according to the SSDI definition.”

    Perhaps some of those employees should not be returning back to work, but are forced to for income after being rejected for Social Security. This might, for example, be an employee who believes the fact that he is starting to go blind is a work safety hazard, but tries to work anyway when he cannot get benefits.