Most things in life require constant balance. We all know it is good to exercise, but if we take too long at the gym, we will eat into work time. We all know it is good to go the extra mile at work, but if we work too late, we will miss family time. We all know it is good to save money, but sometimes we need to splurge on an outing with friends or family. It is good to be as self-sufficient as possible when it comes to home repairs, but some projects require a professional. For people with disabilities that significantly limit one or more aspects of daily life, it is good to work, but it may be hazardous to work too much both because the worker’s disabling conditions might worsen and because the worker might lose critical government benefits. For that reason, it is important that people with disabilities and their families understand that symbiotic relationship between a person’s work and her/his eligibility for disability benefits.
Most people are aware of the most basic way that work determines eligibility for Social Security Retirement Benefits. Workers need to have earned and made contributions, pertaining to the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) also known as Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI), from their paychecks that are sufficient to accumulate 40 Social Security credits (sometimes called quarters or quarter credits). In 1980, one needed just $290 in gross earnings to earn a credit. By 2000, the required amount had increased to $780. For 2021, the figure will be $1,470. A worker can earn a maximum of 4 credits per calendar year, regardless of total earnings. Strictly speaking, the number of credits, required to be “fully insured” for Social Security benefits, is actual equal to one credit for each year between age 21 and the year before the age at which you are applying for benefits. The earliest that you can apply for retirement benefits is 62. The number of years between 21 and 61 is 40. Hence, one needs 40 credits to be insured for retirement. (Photo courtesy of Sigmund via Unsplash.)
The formula, determining if a person is fully insured for disability benefits, is somewhat different since many people develop disabling conditions before the age of 62. Workers between the ages of 31 and 42 need 20 credits. From there, it creeps up by 2 credits for every 2 years of age. For example, a worker needs 24 credits to file for disability claims at age 46, 28 to file at age 50, and 34 to file at age 56. Workers, who are between the ages of 24 and 31, generally need to have one-half the maximum number of quarters they could have earned between their age 21 and the age at which they are filing. For example, a person, who is 29 years old when they go to file for disability, could have earned a maximum of 4 credits/year x 8 years = 32 credits. So, to be fully insured, they would need to have 16 credits. Youth, who are less than 24 years old, need only 6 credits earned in the three years prior to the date they allege onset of disability. This presents an opportunity for transition-aged youth to build paid work experience into their IEP goals and their summer vacation activities. A young person, who earns $3,000/year for three consecutive years before 24, would then be fully insured for disability. Even if the young person cannot find enough hours at a formal job to earn that much, s/he might be able to work as an “independent contractor”, babysitting or pet-sitting or doing yardwork or dog-walking for neighbors. The young worker would just need to file a tax return and pay self-employment tax.
Although a worker needs enough capacity for work to earn the credits s/he would need to be fully insured for disability, the worker also needs to demonstrate at the time of application that her/his disabling conditions limit her/his capacity to perform work at a level that would be considered “Substantial Gainful Activity” or “SGA”. SGA is defined for 2021 as the capacity to work and earn $1,310/month or more. Meeting these two requirements is relatively easy for a person whose disability started later in life. It can be somewhat more complicated for a person whose disability started in childhood or even at birth. It can be quite complicated for a person whose disability is mostly invisible, for example, autism or behavioral health. It can be very complicated for someone who has no physical impairment and whose tested IQ falls in the typical range or higher but who does have significant sensory processing or executive functioning challenges. The fact that the person has worked enough to earn sufficient credits will lead the Social Security Administration to ask what prevents the person from taking on more hours of work hours and/or taking on higher paying work in order to perform SGA. The explanation for why this is not possible must be specific to the applicant’s disabling conditions and not to a factor of the larger economy or the applicant’s employment preferences. The applicant must be able to claim persuasively: “I can do this much work, but no more, for these very particular and well-documented reasons.”
People with disabilities have capacity and drive to work, but they also have very real conditions that limit their capacity to work. Some require the safety net of government benefits. When they understand the interrelationship of work and Social Security disability benefits, people with disabilities can more effectively explain why they can work, but still need the benefits.