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A History of Social Security Disability

August 3, 2014 Blog

By Kirby Wilson

At the law offices of Mike Murburg, P.A., we strive to win Social Security Disability benefits for our Tampa-area clients. We believe the money we win for our clients in court can change those clients’ lives. Everyone wants to work, but some are incapable because of a mental or physical impairment. With our legal expertise, we believe we can give people in these unfortunate circumstances peace of mind. Once benefits are awarded, our clients can be assured of some income regardless of their economic situation.

We witness the power of these benefits every day, but what do we know about the history of the Social Security Disability program? Here’s a quick refresher:

The original Social Security Act was passed into law in 1935. As originally drafted, it was designed to provide a safety net for elderly people with lower incomes who were struggling through the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis in the history of our nation. It was not amended to include a provision to provide support for disabled persons until 1956.

However, as George Washington University historian Edward Berkowitz notes in his history of Social Security Disability, government support for disabled people was a popular, often-discussed part of the 1935 law. It was not included in the first iteration of the Social Security program because government officials were worried about fraud and skyrocketing cost. Berkowitz writes,

“As an actuary who served on the 1938 Social Security Advisory Council put it, ‘You will have workers like those in the dust bowl area, people who have migrated to California and elsewhere, who perhaps have not worked in a year or two, who will imagine they are disabled.’ The actuary warned that unless a highly qualified medical staff examined each applicant, the cost of the program would be higher than ‘anything that can be forecast.’”

These concerns led to a two-decade tabling of the legislation, but they also helped refine the program into something resembling the Social Security benefits program that exists today. During the 40s and 50s, much of the discussion in Congress centered around whether to provide government-sponsored medical rehabilitation or simple monetary support to the disabled. The bill that passed created a program, Social Security Disability Insurance, that gave money to those who could no longer work. However, compared to today’s Disability program, the 1956 version was very limited, restricting benefits to persons over 50 years of age suffering from physical impairments. Mental ailments were dealt with largely by the states1.

Since 1956, there have been a few bumps in the road of Social Security Disability Insurance. In the early 1980s, lawmakers who were worried about the rising number of enrollments in the program attempted several unpopular reforms that actually resulted in even more people enrolling1. Since the 1984 passage of the Social Security Disability Benefits Reform Act of 1984, benefits to the nonelderly population has nearly doubled despite national health improving overall2. Indeed, some current lawmakers are becoming concerned about both the cost of the program and the screening process for applicants.

Indeed, throughout the history of the program, SSDI has been debated ad nauseum, and we don’t expect that to stop. But we also don’t expect the program to go away anytime soon. And as long as it exists, we will fight for our clients’ rights.