Disability Benefits Are Becoming More Difficult to Receive

Michael Sheldon was thrown off a road-paving equipment and fell 50 feet down a Colorado slope, striking a heap of boulders headfirst on a summer day in 2006. His persistent headaches, chronic pain, and post-traumatic stress have made it hard for him to return to his job building roads for new subdivisions after eight surgeries on his head, neck, and spinal cord.

Despite this, the Social Security Administration denied Sheldon’s full claim for disability payments, which would have paid him $1,415 per month, for more than a decade.

Even after three federal judges found substantial flaws in how his case was handled and remanded it to Social Security for fresh hearings, court documents show that the government continued to reject Sheldon.

According to agency statistics, federal judges hearing appeals for denied benefits found fault with nearly six out of every ten cases and remanded them to administrative law judges at Social Security for new hearings in the last two fiscal years, the highest rate in years. This year, court remands are expected to reach similar levels.

Despite a decline in the number of disabled people applying during the coronavirus pandemic, Social Security data reveal that approval rates for benefits are down at every level of review. Fewer than 20% of those who lose their Social Security appeal go to federal court because they lack the time and resources to continue fighting.

Contacting the Social Security Administration is also a challenge. AARP noted wait times of around 31 minutes in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in September 2022, which were roughly ten times longer than in 2012.

According to AARP, the average wait period for an initial disability decision at the Social Security Administration reached an all-time high of more than six months, or 198 days, in August 2022. Nearly three times longer than it was a decade earlier.

In addition, many people are denied several times. Approximately 65% of all disability claims submitted to the Social Security Administration are refused on the first application. If you keep submitting new applications for disability benefits instead of filing an appeal, Social Security will continue to deny them.

the average disability applicant now waits more than two years for a final decision. Sadly, more than 10,000 individuals die each year without receiving an answer.

At their peak in 2001, when they approved 70% of appeals, Social Security judges were comparatively benevolent in the early 2000s. However, that all changed in 2012 when a Kentucky attorney was discovered to have defrauded taxpayers in a $600 million disability benefits scheme.

According to agency data, approval rates fell to 45 percent for several years before increasing to 51 percent last year. Some administrative law judges who granted a large number of cases faced extra scrutiny, a procedure that accelerated during the Trump administration as political appointees took a hard stand against paying claims, according to current and former judges and other officials.

Claims for disability benefits have declined from almost 3 million at the peak of the recession to 1.8 million last year,

Other agency regulations have recently made it more difficult for applicants to make their cases. Certain musculoskeletal issues, for example, are given less weight. Intellectual disabilities shown by IQ tests are not automatically granted benefits. If a claimant files evidence too close to a hearing, it may be rejected. According to a rule change implemented in 2020, a person’s inability to communicate in English is no longer taken into account when determining whether to approve benefits.

The Supreme Court has enabled vocational experts to refuse to reveal how they identify employment that a claimant may still do or how many are available in the economy. Just 12 appeals were sent to the internal panel that must review appeals before they reach federal court.

The United States’ disability benefits system needs reform. Benefits should be increased, and the application process should be streamlined. These benefits are critical to people’s lives, and many die waiting for an answer.


Konish, Lorie. “As Social Security Disability Application Wait Times Hit Record High, Experts Say It’s a Sign the Agency Needs More Funding.” CNBC, CNBC, 16 Sept. 2022, https://www.cnbc.com/amp/2022/09/16/long-social-security-service-waits-signal-need-for-more-funds.html.

Rein, Lisa. “Judges Rebuke Social Security for Errors as Disability Denials Stack Up.” The Washington Post, 25 May 2023, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2023/05/25/social-security-disability-denials-court-remands/.

Trudeau, Joyce. “Does Social Security Disability Deny Everyone the First Time They Apply?” Disability Secrets, Nolo, 21 Jan. 2022, https://www.disabilitysecrets.com/does-social-security-deny-you-the-first-time-you-apply-for-disability.html.

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