Understanding Social Security > Disability Benefits

Disability Benefits


Disability Benefits

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A portion of the payroll taxes individuals pay after they begin working funds the Social Security Disability Insurance program.  Under the program, Social Security pays benefits to individuals who cannot engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.  While some programs give money to individuals with partial disability or short-term disability, Social Security does not.

In general, to get disability benefits, an individual must meet two different earnings tests:

  1. A “recent work” test based on the specific age at the time they became disabled; and
  2. A “duration of work” test to show that they have worked long enough under Social Security.

It can take a long time for the SSA to process an application for disability benefits (the initial decision can take three to five months).  SSA will review individual applications to make sure the technical requirements are met for disability benefits.  SSA will then send an application to the Disability Determination Services office, which completes the disability decision for SSA.

If an individual is approved for disability benefits, the amount received is based on their average lifetime earnings.  If the individual receives other government benefits, the amount of their Social Security disability benefits may be affected.

After an individual starts collecting Social Security disability benefits, they may want to try working again.  SSA has work incentives that allow individuals to test their ability to work and still receive monthly Social Security disability benefits.

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Fast Facts

June 2013 Beneficiary Data

Disabled Workers


8.9 million disabled workers

$10 billion in benefits

$1,129 average monthly benefit




2.1 million dependents

$0.69 billion in benefits


  • Disabled workers and their dependents account for 19% of total benefits paid.
  • About 91 percent of workers age 21-64 in covered employment in 2011 and their families have protection in the event of a long-term disability.
  • Just over 1 in 4 of today’s 20 year-olds will become disabled before reaching age 67.
  • 69% of the private sector workforce has no long-term disability insurance.