COVID Blog: U.S. Disability Benefits Applicants in ‘Abyssful’ Purgatory

by Sabrina White

The Social Security Administration (SSA)’s severely flawed disability determination/reconsideration process is having an even deadlier impact on persons with disabilities than usual. Granted, it is fully understood that the target populations for Social Security benefits are people who are retiring from work, and Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) experiencing either the beginning effects of no income due to the initial onset of disabilities, and/or who have experienced disability in the long term.  Among the several internal misapplications of statutes at the Social Security Administration’s Disability Determination Service (DDS)’s level, one error alone can be the ultimate determinant of whether persons with disabilities live or die, especially when facing imminent peril to the likes of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In spotlighting these issues within the agency, one should note that there are two types of Social Security benefits, with two separate sets of rules in the disability determination process:

  1. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for persons with disabilities who have little or no work history and no access to an income or resources; and 
  2. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) for people who have a longer history of working who have become disabled.

Both of these determination processes have proven to be highly inefficient and painful for persons with disabilities, as well as unduly compound additional deficiencies brought on by a pandemic.  Even prior to the pandemic, applicants faced financial and medical dangers while waiting upwards of six months to never-ending years for an initial favorable/unfavorable determination, followed by up to four other appeals stages, depending on the state in which the claimant resides. According to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, from 2008 to 2019, nearly 110,000 people died while waiting for an appeal. 

A crucial flaw in the agency’s determination process presumes that claimants are able to rely on their families and communities for financial and medical support during the painstakingly lengthy determination and appeals process. For most applicants, this is not the case, as persons with disabilities generally start out at a financial disadvantage during the initial application process. If an individual does have some income or financial means to sustain themselves through the application process, they are likely to get denied still. They may get denied for SSI because they exceed the asset limits, which essentially state that if a person has more than $2,000 in cash or resources, they are ineligible to receive SSI benefits. If an individual either chooses or is forced to work while they await their benefits determination, they may be denied on the basis of Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA). This refers to a cap on the monthly income that serves as the agency’s threshold of disability – if an individual makes more than the limit, they are not considered disabled by the Social Security Administration. The algorithm makes no compensation for claimants whom had a higher earning power prior to becoming disabled who had to stop working due to their disabilities during the required 12-month period. Because of the higher perceived earning power, these applicants are often denied, even though the claimant was not able to fully meet their needs. 

Despite these algorithms, the agency then contradicts itself with special exceptions – the opportunity to have uncapped income can become available under their work incentives programs. One additional social construct of claimants is those that fall in the ‘gray’ area of ability to provide for a single-parent family household’s circumstance. The agency fails to take into account the actual impact of any court-ordered required Accounts Payable which fall under “outgoing income” – for example, child-support (cash support and/or medical), where the claimant doesn’t get to ‘enjoy’ nor use this portion of their income to their advantage. In each of these cases, a clear pattern emerges in which the administration focuses on heavily weighing resources, moreso than on helping the claimant. Even knowing that these criteria are circular and unrealistic, the agency’s internal representatives apply these systemically-oppressive criteria to a fault, as a part of their everyday job duties. This system is designed to the disadvantage and often, detriment of a disabled person. With the lengthy determination/appeals processes, disabled people often feel stuck in state of purgatory. 

The majority of persons with disabilities are people of color, and due to racism, including redlining, hiring and pay discrimination, and denied access to wealth-building, the African-American population holds the highest poverty and subsequently, homelessness rates in every state across the United States. Due to these factors and others, African-Americans are being disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic – hence the death tolls previously mentioned from the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s report.  Rothstein’s “Segregated by Design” 17-minute video compilation shows in great detail how de jure segregation has maintained systemic and institutionalized oppression that could explain why persons with disabilities are deficient of assets and resources to sustain themselves and their families. Exploring eight key environmental injustices in unison provides unique clarity on how each of the individual environmental injustices are connected via domino-effect to the other(s) as follows:

  1. Landlessness                                 5) Hunger-in-America
  2. Poverty                                          6) Health Disparities
  3. Homelessness                               7) Educational Disparities
  4. Wealth/Income Inequalities          8) Mass Incarceration of African-American Men

One additional note for persons with disabilities during COVID-19 is that on state-level assistance and optional eviction moratoriums, it is technically per states’ ‘right-to-choose’ regarding enforcement of nationally declared moratoriums. Large numbers of persons with disabilities are more likely to face eviction, compounded episodic homelessness, compounded poverty, and/or raw poverty circumstances, all of which can be linked to the cycle-of-poverty identified in the landlessness phenomenon first proposed in Esman’s (1978) compiled report presented at Cornell University to the Rural Development Committee, where he framed the ‘landless’ and ‘near-landless’ terminology.  Landlessness was later revisited by Sinha’s (1985) compiled text stemming from Sen’s (1983) premise that landlessnesswas both a cause and symptom of chronic poverty, which espoused the situations and tribulations the landless are going through in connection to deficiencies in assets and resources. The Social Security Administration’s process requires disabled people to stay in the cycle-of-poverty, whether or not they receive assistance. As we collectively face the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, persons with disabilities will face increased landlessness and cycles of poverty, all while awaiting benefits that due to this flawed determinant system, may never come. 

It is clear that the cycle of poverty and by extension, the benefits determination process that holds persons with disabilities in the cycle of poverty, is not only painful, but it violates the constitutional right to life of persons with disabilities. As Rothstein posits in the “Segregated by Design” video, “And if it’s unconstitutional, then we have an obligation to remedy it!”

Documents referenced:

Esman, M.J. (1978). Landlessness and near-landless in developing countries, p. ii. Rural Development Committee. Cornell University.

Neuman, Lawrence W. (2011). Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches 7th Edition. Allyn & Bacon.

Picchi, Aimee. (2020). Almost 110,000 Americans died while waiting for a Social Security disability hearing. CBS News.

Rothstein, Richard. (2018). The Color of Law A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Liveright. 

Rothstein, Richard. (2018). Segregated by Design.  Retrieved from https://www.segregatedbydesign.com/.

Sen, Amartya. (1983). Poverty and famines: an essay on entitlement and deprivation. Oxford University Press, USA. 

Sinha, Radha. (1985). Landlessness: A Growing Problem. FAO Economic & Social Development Series. No 28/F2720.

White, Sabrina. (2018). Dire Systemic Inequitable Domino-Effects of Landlessness: Mississippi the Worst-Case Scenario.  Dissertation.

About the author

Author photo of Sabrinah White, a Black woman with curly black and gray hair, smiling.

Sabrinah White, PhD is an Urban & Regional Planner/Environmental Social Scientist and speaker committed to reform efforts on environmental injustices and activism for our society’s much needed expeditious change under the looming disadvantageous impacts of global warming/climate change for marginalized, disenfranchised, and disadvantaged groups.  She is also a Person with Disabilities (PWD) who has challenged and championed Social Security Administration’s faulty disability policies, misapplication of statutes, and in-house minutiae at all levels of the appeals processes including federal Judicial Review for over 6+ years, and won as a Pro Se claimant.  Amongst her efforts in public service, she has also served as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteer-in-Service-to-America).

Social Media Profiles & Blogs:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LANDLESSNESS/

YouTube: LANDLESSNESSReform


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