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The Evolution of Disability Benefits in America

The Social Security Disability system program evolved out of decades of legislation. While the initial years do not quite reflect the current system in the country, it certainly helps to gain a glimpse into the humble beginnings of this very system program, which assists many Americans each day.Social Security Disability Insurance

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) did not come into fruition until 1956; however, the initial conception of this program existed several years before its implementation.

The Great Depression

The Social Security Administration (SSA) began consideration of a disability benefits system in 1936. During this time, officials brainstormed a plan that could endure the struggles of the Great Depression. To begin, the SSA initially composed a description of “disability” into proposals in an effort to distinguish and address “unemployment” and “disability.”

In place of drafting a definition close to laws under the workers’ compensation and veterans systems, the SSA defined “disability” in the following way: “An impairment of mind or body which continuously renders it impossible for the disabled person to follow any substantial gainful occupation.” Though slightly different, the first attempt echoes the definition of a “disability” under current laws. During the precursor years of the system’s foundation, the condition was intended to last for the duration of the person’s life.

Despite this definition, many officials during the Great Depression did not carry faith in federally administered disability benefits. Specifically, the 1938 Social Security Advisory Council was concerned that every unemployed person would consider himself or herself as disabled. Medical professionals would need to get involved to make the program legit and precise.

In essence, much of the initial brainstorming that set the foundation for SSDI occurred in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet, the technical implementation of laws did not occur until the 1950s.

The end of the Great Depression: rehabilitation vs. cash benefits

SSDI received little consideration by Congress until the Committee on Ways and Means worked on a proposed system in 1949. At this point, the Great Depression was finished and the war environment set the backdrop for the creation of a more rehabilitative system.

During this time, those opposed to Social Security Disability Insurance felt disabled persons should receive rehabilitative services – not a pension that permitted one to stop working. However, Social Security officials felt that while recovery and rehabilitation was significant, these did not replace the need for overt benefits. Therefore, the Committee included a proposed disability insurance program in a bill that was passed by the House of Representatives in 1949.

Yet, the Senate chose to look at solely at rehabilitation. It did not include disability benefits in its creation of the Social Security proposal, which was passed in the year 1950. The House reconsidered, and as an ultimate compromise, Congress created a new “public assistance” class: Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled. This was a new federal program.

Social Security in its traditional retirement-based form became an accepted system that received ample support after 1950. Social Security Disability Insurance, on the other hand, was controversial. After a plethora of legislative efforts, a couple of laws in 1954 and 1954 assisted with the final passage of a disability system in 1956.

The precursor laws

For example, legislation in 1952 proposed a system where one could freeze Social Security benefits up until the typical retirement age in a situation where a person was disabled and could not participate in the workforce for years as a result of a particular condition. This passed after those considering the proposal agreed to let the disability freeze period expire before it could be implemented.

In the end, this new system offered no real cash benefits; however, it did prevent such periods of disability from clearing out retirement benefits too soon. It was also in this year where the idea evolved that the federal government should permit states to assess primary disability determinations.

After some other legislative struggles, which mainly focused on rehabilitation and not direct cash benefits, the House of Representatives approved the disability coverage system in 1955. Once again, the Senate Finance Committee opposed the proposal. This led to a battle on the Senate floor that finally resulted in a victory.

Social Security Disability Insurance in cash form was now a real thing. As a way of garnering legislative support, those in favor of the bill limited benefits to those fifty or older. The disability law at the time did not provide benefits for the dependents of disabled employees, too. Similar to other Social Security benefits of period, this “disability” system essentially served as another type of retirement program.

However, a couple of years after, President Eisenhower approved a law amending the disability rules to permit payment of benefits to disabled employees of any age in 1960. The subsequent law also included dependents. This increased the number of recipients that could benefit from the program.

Supplemental Security Income

Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the other part of the system, came about in the context of welfare in 1969. At this time, attention focused on the reform of “adult welfare categories.” Essentially, it became known that the administration of Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled and other federal programs could be operated by the Social Security Administration in the context of a new program called “Supplemental Security Income.”

Social Security Administration officials liked the new program, as they felt it would ease pressure to heighten the minimum benefit under Social Security and help support the link between making contributions and receiving benefits. Ultimately, policymakers automatically assigned welfare (SSI) recipients to the same plan that organized SSDI benefits. In other words, states made disability assessments under both SSDI and SSI, and the two programs used the same definition of a “disability.”

Today, although SSDI and SSI benefits are very similar, they are also quite different. There are variances in the benefits and recipients, and the systems are funded in unique ways.

Other notable markers in the history of disability benefits

There were other significant developments to the overall system. For example, the Social Security Amendments of 1980 created several changes. Most involved employment incentive laws for both programs. The laws also required the SSA to carryout reviews of current recipients to ensure they were eligible. Because this created a hefty workload for the SSA, in 1983, the reviews stopped.

Moreover, in 1984, Congress passed the Disability Benefits Reform Act, which also transformed the program in several different ways. In general, the 1980s brought several financial problems for the system. As a result, the financial stability of the system continues to be considered throughout the legislative growth of disability benefits – even today.

Another major hurdle for the program was in 1999, when the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999 was signed. The law created a Ticket to Work and Self-Sufficiency Program that provides recipients with a “ticket” to receive vocational rehabilitation services, occupational services and other support. The provisions also create safeguards for beneficiaries.

Ultimately, the system has continued to evolve over the years. It would be difficult to detail every single legislative change or transformation within the system. Yet, these are some of the most historic events in the chronicle of the program.

In fact, even the definition of what a “disability” is has transformed over the years. For example, the disability program now focuses on issues that last more than a year instead of conditions that last a lifetime. There have also been several enactments to help expedite the receipt of program benefits for those with very specific and severe disabilities. Also, throughout all of this, there have been continuous and relentless efforts by old and new administrations to financially support the supply of benefits as the number of recipients grows.

SSDI and SSI: Legal assistance is important

This is just a glimpse into the birth of the program that now benefits several struggling Americans today. Given the complex nature of the laws, it can be difficult for an applicant to receive deserved benefits. Many people are often denied assistance upon an initial application. However, those in need of benefits can always appeal.

If you would like to learn more about the overall disability system and the current laws as they stand, it may help to meet with a legal professional. A lawyer versed in the system’s history and current mandates can help you with the pursuit of disability aid.

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