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Is SSDI definition of disability “looser” or more accurate?

The recent unemployment numbers from October were criticized as not being accurate, because they fail to account for SSDI recipients. Workers who receive SSDI have to have been found unable to work and “disabled” by SSA, but critics claim that more workers are using SSDI in place of unemployment benefits.

This argument is based on the idea that because SSA changed the definition of disabled, which critics claim is “looser” than originally written in the legislation. They often gloss over the fact that the primary change in the definition of disabled was made in the 1980s.

They also argue that SSA now uses a broader criterion that further expands the pool of potential SSDI recipients. This statement is nominally true, but it ignores that some of these changes were necessary, after courts found the implementation of the program was too restrictive.

The determination now allows for a combination of various factors that permit the judgment that a worker is disabled, but it’s hard to see how this is a “failure” of the system. If someone did not fit within the old definition of disabled, that alone did not mean they could work, it simply meant they could not receive SSDI benefits.

There does not appear to be much research on workers who may have suffered from multiple ailments, which singly would not have qualified under the listing of impairments from SSA, reacted. They may have simply remained unemployed, and poorer, without SSDI benefits.

While funding and administration of the program is under scrutiny, it is important to keep in mind that obtaining SSDI benefits is not easy. The application and disability determination process is complex, and most people who receive benefits have genuine disabling condition.

Source: Richard V. Burkhauser, “A Proposal for Fundamental Change in Social Security Disability Insurance” Statement before the House Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, September 14, 2012

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