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Social Security Disability Insurance (Title II of Social Security Act)​

Categories: Finances, Social Security

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a federal program that provides cash payments to individuals who are under age 65, have earned sufficient “work credits” by paying Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes, and meet the definition of “disabled.” An estimated 11 million people receive SSDI with an average benefit of $1,000 per month. The amount of the benefit depends on the worker’s earnings record, and there is a 5-month waiting period before benefits begin. Spouses and dependent children of disabled workers are eligible to receive partial benefits. After receiving SSDI for two years, a person with a disability becomes eligible for Medicare.

Legislative History

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) became law under the Social Security Act Amendments of 1956. For many years prior to that time, lawmakers debated the definition of disability and whether or not cash benefits were a disincentive for individuals to remain in the workforce. To secure initial passage, policymakers agreed to limit benefits to individuals age 50-64.

Lawmakers strengthened the SSDI program from 1958 to 1972 based on a surplus in the Social Security trust fund. SSDI benefits were enriched and the eligible population was expanded to workers under age 50 and widows/widowers. The definition of disability was clarified to mean that the worker could not only not do the job he/she formerly held, but could not do any work in the national economy (allowing for age, education, and experience). By the mid-1970s, however, the program was challenged by larger-than-anticipated growth in the number of beneficiaries and increases in the cost of living.

A 1979 Senate Committee on Finance Report on disability legislation identified multiple concerns that were addressed by the Social Security Amendments of 1980. These included creating incentives to work, making the disability determination processes more uniform within and across states, and conducting determination reviews. In the 1980s, individuals, states, and organizations representing administrative law judges filed lawsuits over the application and review process that were seen as onerous. The Social Security Disability Benefits Reform Act of 1984 sought to protect potential beneficiaries and standardize policies and procedures used by the Social Security Administration. The legislation also required SSA to revise criteria under the “Mental Disorders” category in the list of impairments.

The 1990s brought another period of rapid growth in the program, leading to the limitation of benefits for persons suffering from alcoholism and drug abuse. Congress opted for a more comprehensive approach to encouraging employment through the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives improvement Act of 1999 (Public Law 106-70).


The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 ensured that the SSDI and SSI programs could sustain benefits until 2022. In enacting the legislation, Congress called for an investigation of cost savings.


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