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SSDI - Social Security Disability Insurance Overview

What is SSDI?

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a payroll tax-funded, federal insurance program. A portion of the FICA taxes workers pay are set aside for SSDI (as well as Social Security Retirement and Medicare). SSDI, which was established in 1956, is designed to provide people with income if they are unable to work due to a disability or until their condition improves, and guarantees income if their condition does not improve. Then once retirement age is met – 65 or older – recipients move from SSDI to Social Security retirement income.

The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) definition of disability is different than other programs available through employers or private insurance. The SSA pays only for total disability. No benefits are payable for partial disability or for short-term disability.

Eligibility for SSDI is based on the inability to work. People generally are considered disabled by the SSA if:

  • They cannot do work that they did previously;
  • It is determined that they cannot adjust to other work because of their medical and/or psychological condition(s); and
  • Their disability has lasted or is expected to last for at least one year or result in death.

According to the SSA, studies show that a 20-year-old worker has a 1-in-4 chance of becoming disabled before reaching retirement age.

Current State of SSDI

Only a small percentage of the American population with disabilities will qualify for SSDI. About 3 million people applied for SSDI in fiscal year 2015, but many of these will be turned down. However, the number of people applying for and qualifying for SSDI has increased dramatically in recent years and will continue to do so in the near future.

A number of factors have created a large backlog in the processing of SSDI applications. For example, the average age among SSDI recipients is 53.5. Also, over time, additional types of disabilities, such as mental disabilities, have been acknowledged by the SSA 3nd this has increased the number of people who qualify. In addition, SSA employees are retiring in large numbers and are not being replaced due to federal funding shortfalls.

The result is that both receiving and administering SSDI benefits has become extremely difficult for both those who need SSDI benefits and for the SSA. Currently, more than 1,000,000 people are backlogged at the SSDI hearing level alone. In 2015, the wait time at the hearing level was an 480 days. To see the average wait time in a specific area, check out this disability backlog chart. Though the SSA is working hard to cut through the backlog, improve its methods and add staff, those with disabilities who go it alone will continue to face a complex and intimidating process – and long delays in obtaining the SSDI benefits they deserve.

SSDI Fast Facts

Year Established:


Number of Employees:

65,717 SSA employees
(Sep. 2015)

SSDI Income:

$117.1 Billion

SSDI Applicants Backlog:

Level 1:


Level 2:


Level 3:


Level 4:




Average SSA wait time
across all levels:

800+ days

Average Monthly SSDI
Benefit (2014):


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