Access to Benefits and Financial Security: An Analysis of the Social Security Disability Programs

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by Zachary Morris, Stony Brook University

The Social Security Disability (SSD) programs, including Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income, provide benefits to more than 12 million working age adults with work-disabilities who are administratively determined to be unable to do any substantial gainful activity. The goal of these programs is to help individuals maintain their living standards in the event of a work-limiting disability. However, the extent to which benefits are (a) available to those with work-disabilities and (b) generous enough to ensure a reasonable standard of living remains understudied. In a recently published article, I evaluated the availability and generosity of disability benefit programs in nine high-income countries using data from the Survey of Health Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) (Morris, 2020a). The proposed research will extend this evaluation to the United States drawing on the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) and linked administrative data from the Social Security Administration.

The goal of the analysis will be three-fold. First, I will assess to what extent SSD benefits are received by adults with work-disabilities, age 50 to the retirement age, and whether benefit utilization has changed over time. To do so, a variable of work-disability will be constructed using a latent index of work-ability that is closely linked to the International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health definition of work-disability. Specifically, I will draw on the robust cross-sectional data on health and disability benefit receipt in the restricted HRS data spanning from 1992 to 2016. Multivariate regression will be used to assess whether the relationship between work-disability and disability benefit receipt changed over time. Second, an assessment will be made of the prevalence of financial insecurity experienced by those who receive SSD benefits and whether, controlling for sociodemographic factors, SSD beneficiaries are more or less likely to experience these hardships. I hypothesize that SSD beneficiaries will (a) experience significantly increased odds of financial insecurity relative to non-beneficiaries but (b) lower rates of hardship relative to those with work-disabilities who do not receive SSD benefits. Third, I will investigate the recently released 2020 HRS COVID-19 Project to examine the extent of financial hardship experienced by SSD beneficiaries during the coronavirus pandemic. The results will contribute to an evaluation of how effectively the United States SSD programs determine disability and support the economic security of adults with workdisabilities, including SSD beneficiaries.

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