The Social Security Disability system in the United States is very complicated. Whether you are a recently disabled father trying to provide for your family, a single mother who can no longer work because of an illness, or the parent of a child who needs extra help because of a challenging condition, obtaining benefits is not easy. The “system” involves a complex set of rules and requirements that make it very hard for the average person to successfully receive payments.

There is hope, however, and we appreciate you looking for help here. Our law firm provides unique benefits to clients just like you, which include:

  • A singular focus on representing the injured and disabled.
  • Having all important work performed by an experienced disability attorney.
  • A guarantee that you pay no fees unless you obtain social security disability benefits.
  • A proven track record of success in both routine and difficult cases.

Regardless of whether you are considering filing for benefits for the first time, or have been denied numerous times in the past, please call our office at (404) 255-9838. We will discuss your options free of charge, and help you make an informed decision about what to do next. We look forward to talking with you.

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Many Americans are currently satisfied with the growing economy.  Unemployment is down.  Currently only 3.9% of Americans list themselves as looking for work today; down from 4.9% in October 2016.  Typically, in periods of low unemployment, wages are expected to increase.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, today’s real average hourly wage is $10.76 per hour.  In October of 2016, the average real hourly wage was $10.72 per hour.  Average hourly wages have increased by only four cents an hour since 2016.

Still, one must consider the inflation rate.  The current US core rate of inflation is 2.4%.  From January to July of 2018, inflation has risen .8 percent.  Inflation has grown over the last few years, making the slightly increasing nominal wages less impactful.  Over the past year, nominal wages— the amount of money people receive in their paychecks without taking inflation into account–have increased 2.7%. As the price of goods and services have risen, average wages have not kept pace.  These factors together lead to a stagnation in real wages. The Economic Policy Institute argues that data shows that workers and the US economy as a whole would benefit significantly from nominal growth rates (the rate not adjusted for inflation) above 3.5% over a long period of time.  Adjusted for inflation, average weekly earnings have fallen 0.1% in the last 12 months.

While many feel the economy is on the upswing, some may be confused as to why their paycheck is not providing a better standard of living.  The devil is in the details.  While unemployment is down, and wages have slightly increased in response, the inflation rate is rapidly rising.  Because inflation is rising faster than wages are growing, many wage-earning Americans are not getting the full benefit of a growing economy.  For people with disabilities, inflation strongly impacts those on a fixed income.  Some individuals with disabilities have a higher cost of working, such as special transportation needs.  This further reduces the value of their wage-earning dollar.

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Georgia does not require employers to provide for paid sick leave.  Paid sick leave is not only important for an individual’s health, but also for one’s financial security.  There are 34.2 million employees in the private sector in America without paid sick benefits. This not only affects the health of these individuals, but also their likelihood of living in poverty. Those without paid sick leave are three times more likely to be living below the poverty line, according to research from Florida Atlantic and Cleveland State University. Vicki Shabo, vice president at National Partnerships for Women & Families, argues that when employees choose to take unpaid sick leave, “they lose money that goes towards groceries, transportation and health care expenses.”

How should employees without paid sick leave protect themselves?   If you are at or below the poverty line, you should take advantage of any government benefit programs available to you, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) program.  If you are above the poverty line, working, and have some disposable income, you should consider purchasing disability insurance.  This  can protect you from financial struggles resulting from an unexpected illness or accident.  Financial advisors usually recommend setting aside three months of income for unexpected economic downturns.  While setting aside three months of income may seem difficult, a second job may allow you to accomplish this.

While employees can negotiate for better benefits from their employer, absent a collective bargaining agreement (usually negotiated by unions), employees do not have much leverage.  If this method is not an option, employees can look into new job opportunities. With a growing economy, there may be a job with similar wages and skills required that offers benefits that could make a huge difference in the long-run.

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New federal legislation will increase oversight of representative payees who manage Social Security disability payments made to beneficiaries. In most cases, Social Security disability payments are handled by the beneficiary himself or herself. However, in some cases, beneficiaries may be incapable of handling their own financial decisions. In such cases, a representative payee manages payments on behalf of the beneficiary.

Representative payee are expected to handle opening and maintaining bank accounts, receiving and maintaining the Social Security disability claim payouts, and coordinating with the beneficiary and loved ones in order to ensure that the funds are used exclusively for the beneficiary’s benefit.

However, there are instances where representative payees abuse these privileges and misuse funds. This may occur partially because of the minimal oversight over the representative payee’s allocation of the funds.

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To qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), applicants must be unable to perform any “substantial gainful activity” that pays $1,180 a month or $14,160 annually. This is roughly the income a minimum-wage American worker makes per year. Also, their condition must be expected to last at least a year or until death.

The analysis of the data from the Census Bureau by economist Ernie Tedeschi shows that the number of Americans ages 25-54 out of the workforce because of a disability has declined 7% since 2014. With 10.3 million people out of the workforce as of May 2018, this reverses an upward trend that had been in place for decades. This can possibly be explained by the growing economy over the last few years, which has allowed companies to hire more workers. University of Maryland economists Katharine G. Abraham and Melissa S. Kearney studied situations where individuals applying for disability benefits were assigned to judges who varied in their leniency. This allowed researchers to compare the outcome of similar applicants when they given or denied benefits. They found that for individuals whose cases for SSDI were questionable due to the acuteness of their condition, 28% of those people decided not to work who otherwise would have. This means that 28 out of 100 individuals decided not to work for fear of this interfering with their ability to successfully win disability benefits.

Robert VerBruggen, deputy managing editor of National Review, emphasized that the current SSDI program fails to accommodate disabled individuals who are still able to work in some capacity. He argued that reform to the program is “imperative.”  A long-term plan, he added, should include awarding temporary or partial benefits to those able to work, but limited in their abilities to do so. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan think tank devoted to reducing the deficit and debt, has published other potential options including subsidizing those with disabilities in their first few months back in the workforce.

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A major issue facing the Social Security program involves a lack of meaningful and current legislation to improve the programs changing and expanding needs.  In 1982, under the Reagan administration, Congress passed a bipartisan series of payroll tax increases in order to ensure funding . Since then, Congress has failed to pass significant changes to the Social Security program, with many lawmakers choosing to sidestep this controversial issue. As time has passed, this program has consistently faced a looming deficit.  The longer lawmakers wait to act, the more difficult it will be “to avoid cutting benefits on current and future retirees.”

Many people ask what is holding Congress back from taking this critical step of implementing reform to Social Security. The answer is relatively simple:  Democrats would like to raise or eliminate the maximum taxable earning cap for Social Security’s payroll tax, requiring wealthy Americans to pay more into the system. Republicans, on the other hand, would like to increase the full retirement age to between 68 to 70, which would save funds for this program in the long-run.

Bipartisanship in Congress is necessary in order for any action to be successful in making changes to the Social Security program. With a bill on this issue likely requiring 60 votes to pass the Senate—due to the filibuster—it is unlikely that any party will in the near future occupy enough seats to pass this legislation alone.

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Some people ask whether immigrants  can be eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).  First, authorized non-citizens may be eligible for SSI if they fit into one of these categories granted by the Department of Homeland Security:

  • On August 22, 1996, they were lawful residents of the US and were disabled or blind.
  • They were receiving SSI on August 22, 1996, and lawfully residing in the US.
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Today, fewer Americans are applying for disability benefits than in America’s recent history, with a growing economy and an increasing number of retirees leaving the program due to becoming eligible for Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare. In 2017, fewer than 1.5 million Americans applied for benefits through Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). This may be due partially to additional lower-skilled jobs being available in a growing economy which those with modest disabilities sometimes can handle. Additionally, employers may be more willing to accommodate workers with disabilities. Eric Kingson, a professor of social work at Syracuse University, added that when the economy is doing well, “employers are more willing to look to other labor pools and be more accommodating.”

However, getting the disability benefits in the first place has become harder today.  The Social Security Administration hardened their standard for awarding benefits without any major announcement. Overall, the odds of a successful appeal fell from 69% in 2008 to 48% in 2015. Nicole Maestas, a Harvard economist, said that the Social Security Administration analyzed judges who approved disability claims at a higher rate than others and singled them out for special instruction. This action may have been taken as a result of critics in the media exposing some abuse and fraud in the system since 2011, as reported in the Wall Street Journal and 60 Minutes.

As a result, the administrative law judges handling disability cases have become more skeptical of claims and less easily persuaded to approve benefits. Richard Browdie, CEO of the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, argues that the process has become “overly restrictive.” However, Torsten Slok, chief international economist of Deutsche Bank, argued that this data contradicts the “post-recession narrative of an out-of-control entitlement program.”  Whatever the reasons are for these trends, it is clear that fewer people are applying for disability benefits and among those, less are being approved.

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With the increased political debate about the future of Social Security in America, many people worry that they or their children will not receive the same benefits in the future.  A recent Gallup poll showed that 51% of pre-retirees aged 50-64, 49% of workers aged 30-49, and 33% of millennial aged 18-29 say they are concerned about their benefits. While many people consider there to be flaws in the American Social Security system, the proposition that this system is in serious danger of closing down, is not true. It is almost impossible that this program could go broke because it is funded by payroll taxes—which are incurred by the working population.

There are good reasons for people to be concerned about Social Security as for many people it is their only guaranteed retired income. This program impacts almost every older American: according to the Social Security Administration (SSA) , 97% of adults aged 60 to 89 currently receive or will receive Social Security. Generally most Americans do not mind paying the payroll taxes towards Social Security because they know this will benefit them when they are old aged and cannot work anymore.

It is important to also clarify how the Social Security system in America works in order to better understand this topic. It is considered a “pay-as-you-go” system, which means that payroll taxes for today’s workers’ pay for those receiving benefits today. When you retire, you depend on receiving your Social Security retirement benefits from the payroll taxes of those working currently. Thus, this does lead to a potential sustainability issue for this program, as the United States is increasingly becoming an older population and in turn, has a higher proportion of retirees.

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On July 10, 2018, the White House signed an Executive Order that gives agency heads greater discretion over the selection of administrative law judges. The United States federal government employs 2,000 judges, with the largest number serving in the Social Security Administration as the judiciary for benefit claims. This, in effect, overturns the Administrative Procedure Act (1946), which set up a system for choosing judges based on scores in detailed examinations. This places the future selection of administrative law judges more directly in the hands of political appointees, who may not have adequate experience or knowledge on important issues to make effective decisions. In this order, it states that the only requirement for an appointee is to “possess a professional license to practice law and be authorized to practice law”—making any lawyer qualified to serve as an administrative law judge. Before this order, requirements to serve included a vetting process through the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), as well as 7 years of experience as an attorney. The order does, however, add that “each agency shall follow the principle of veteran preference as far as administratively feasible,” which is vague and open to interpretation.

John Palguta, a civil service expert, cautioned of the importance of oversight from the OPM to “assure that departments or agencies do not abuse this authority by violating the merit system principles…” Many people are concerned that this order could lead to what Palguta fears: the appointment of judges based on political ideology, rather than their merit. Marilyn Zahm, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, warned that this system “could lead to abuse and biased decisions.”

For those applying for Social Security disability benefits, this decision could impact you or a loved one. If judges selected lack education about the importance of benefits for those with disabilities and the long and trying process until a decision is made by the court, many people’s cases in the courts could be at risk. Those applying for Social Security benefits deserve to have lawyers who are unbiased and well versed in the issues that affect these people’s lives. This Executive Order may negatively impact many people applying for benefits if the administrative law judges are biased against them.  It will be important to watch the appointment of Administrative Law Judges to the agency over the next months to see its impact on the court’s rulings for those with disabilities.

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In Georgia, there are various programs that help people living in poverty.  These programs include Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP), Head Start, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). SNAP is a program that provides low-income households with food stamps to help pay for the cost of food. In order to be eligible for SNAP in Georgia, you must be a resident of the state and have a current bank balance (savings and checking combined) of under $3,001 if you share your household with a person with a disability or person over age 60. If you do not fit into these categories, your bank balance must be under $2,001. You must also have an annual household income (before taxes) below a certain amount (for example, no more than $32,630 for a family of 4).

Another program supporting low-income families is TANF, which provides temporary assistance to families. This program has four goals, which includes giving families support and job preparation.  In order to be eligible for TANF, you must be a US citizen, national, legal alien, or permanent resident, and also have a low income. For example, a family of three must have an income of less than $784/month to qualify for TANF. The amount of cash benefit this program provides depends on the county you live in and your family’s income.  However, there is a five year lifetime limit on TANF benefits.

Head Start, a federal program, educates and supports infants and children up to five years old in families with incomes under the national poverty level. Head Start programs enhance young children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development and work to prepare them for success in school. There are also some Early Head Start programs which support pregnant women and babies living in poverty. The maximum income eligibility for Head Start depends on your household size. However, there are groups eligible for Head Start programs regardless of income including: