The vicious circle of “proving” your disability

September 28, 2018

What if, after decades of working, you reach retirement age and apply for Social Security. The Social Security Administration turns down your application, because they think you are still capable of working. Because of mandatory retirement at your workplace, you have no job and no income.


You appeal. You gather reams of information. You consult with experts who validate your case. Meanwhile, you liquidate whatever assets you have to buy food and pay for utilities just to survive.


A year later, Social Security rejects your appeal. You hire an attorney and sue the federal government. You consult more experts. You strengthen your case. You move in with relatives because you have no assets.


After another year you finally get a court decision. Maybe you win this time and Social Security is ordered to write you a check for back payments. That’s a mixed blessing—your attorney takes one-third of the money.


Or maybe you lose your case. Now you have no income and no assets. You might try to re-enter the workforce, competing with younger, healthier, more skilled workers. If you didn’t have health problems before you started this process, you probably do now, at least depression from the constant stress. Maybe you die.


None of this had to happen. After all, you paid into the system for decades. This isn’t welfare. It’s a government insurance program that all Americans pay into.


Of course, this isn’t the typical experience of applying for Social Security, or Medicare, or unemployment, or even most private insurance claims. But it is typical for Social Security Disability.


Sixty-five percent of people who apply for disability are initially turned down. Another 85 percent are denied on appeal. To get disability benefits, many applicants need to hire an attorney and sue the government. Of those who file suit, 96 percent lose.


The process typically takes three years. Even if you win, it provides less than subsistence income—on average $1,100 a month. Try taking your current monthly expenses and devise a budget on $1,000 a month. It’s a shock to the system.


Let’s say you’re one of the lucky ones. You had a steady job with a living wage of around $15 an hour, or $31,000 a year. You bought a house and a car. Between your car, mortgage, utilities, food/ and insurance, you’re spending $1,500-$2,000 a month.


If you’re one of those people who won the genetic lottery and doesn’t have a chronic illness in your future, then you’re on cruise control. But then the unthinkable happens: You destroy a disk in your back.


How do you explain to the kids that instead of designer clothes this year, they’ll be wearing hand-me-downs? College fund? IRA? Kiss those goodbye. Maybe you can scrape by once the disability checks start coming in. Your wife can get a part-time job, and the kids can deliver newspapers.


Then the disability checks are delayed—six months, a year. You have to sell your house and move into subsidized housing. You develop a tic. Every time you pull out the food card at the grocery store your head jerks side-to-side to see who’s watching you disapprovingly. The real killer is the first Christmas with no tree and no presents. You’re both grateful and ashamed when someone donates pre-wrapped presents for the kids.


If you’re lucky, you find an attorney willing to take your case. If you’re really lucky, you win and get a lump-sum check for back payments. But, after paying back your relatives and catching up on your car payments, what’s left won’t cover what you still owe on credit cards. Your credit is destroyed and owning any assets will stop the disability checks.


This happens because the Social Security Disability Insurance program is grossly underfunded. Remember when Congress was all about saving Social Security from bankruptcy? They had an option to fix the disability program, and they were aware it was in trouble. They did nothing. It’s a thing in Congress—keep unpopular programs, but don’t adequately fund them.


After the 2008 economic meltdown, they added money to unemployment benefits for the millions who lost their jobs. But they left people with disabilities, present and future, twisting in the wind, while cutting back funding for workplace safety inspections.


What’s the only real difference between people drawing Social Security or unemployment checks and those struggling with disabilities? Just the word “disability.”


Evan Sasman is a support specialist for people with developmental disabilities and certified peer specialist in Wisconsin. He deals with a disability, a hand amputation and resulting PTSD. He is currently writing a book about PTSD and building a website about trauma issues. He lives in rural Bayfield County, Wisconsin, near Ashland. He is an award-winning journalist and has worked for newspapers ranging in size from small weeklies to urban dailies. He was previously editor of the Bad River Tribe newspaper and has taught at-risk students for the tribal high school. He is a former instructor for Lac Courte Oreilles Community College. He is a member of the Wisconain Writer's Association and the Lake Superior Writers.

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