Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Barriers to Benefits

Why might a person with schizoaffective disorder, PTSD, major depression, and suicidal thoughts not be receiving Social Security disability benefits? A recent New York Times article noted a statistically significant decline in the number of people receiving Social Security disability benefits last year. Recent coverage of this issue in both the Washington Post and on National Public Radio observed similar trends.

While it’s tempting to ascribe the drop in the number of recipients to a growing economy, the Times article notes several other reasons for the decline: the closing of local Social Security offices, pronounced budget cuts and, notably, a directive from the Social Security Administration making it harder for claimants to prove their disability.

Today only 48% of applicants nationally are successful at the hearing stage of their appeals, falling from a high of 69% in 2008. In DC, the current allowance rate is a mere 34%. (SSA Data).

At the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia (and in my previous work as a clinic coordinator at Bread for the City), I have seen the devastating effects of these tightened requirements on disabled, low-income applicants. Our Social Security clients usually have serious mental and/or physical health issues, minimal education, and little work experience. However, they are denied benefits repeatedly and Legal Aid attorneys often spend, without exaggeration, years trying to get them benefits.

Right now, the SSA-reported average wait time for a hearing before a judge in DC is 20 months. Many of our clients have waited over two years. In the meantime, our clients’ health typically worsens and they struggle to feed not just themselves, but also their families on a daily basis. It is a painful reality to witness.

While the Social Security Administration slashes its budget, closes facilities, and tightens the requirements for meeting disability, the impact falls disproportionately on those living in poverty. Here at Legal Aid, we will continue advocating on our clients behalf to try to help them access this critical lifeline.

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