Social Security and the "D" in OASDI: The History of a Federal Program Insuring Earners against Disability

By Kearney, John R. | Social Security Bulletin, August 2006 | Go to article overview

Social Security and the "D" in OASDI: The History of a Federal Program Insuring Earners against Disability


Kearney, John R., Social Security Bulletin


Today it is widely recognized that the acronym "OASDI" refers to the Old- Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program of the Social Security Administration (SSA). However, the program that began in 1935 originally did not contain provisions for disability insurance. In fact, the "D" in OASDI was implemented more than 20 years later, on August 1, 1956. This is the date that President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the 1956 Amendments to the Social Security Act establishing the Social Security Disability Insurance program. At first the program provided monthly benefits only to disabled workers between the ages of 50 and 65 who met certain requirements for insured status. Even though the program later significantly expanded its coverage, its implementation in 1956 represented the historic culmination of an effort by Social Security planners that began in the 1930s.

This year-2006-the Social Security disability program celebrates its 50th anniversary. In February of this year, this program administered by the Social Security Administration paid benefits to more than 8 million disabled individuals and their dependents. Although SSA still faces challenges in administering the program, it has succeeded in accomplishing what planners had envisioned: the provision of social insurance to one of the neediest groups in the United States.

There had been much resistance to the introduction of disability benefits. Major concerns then underscore the same operational issues that challenge the program today: the difficulty in determining whether a disabled individual has lost the capacity to work and the concern over managing program costs. Opponents of implementing cash disability payments had legitimate concerns, and Social Security planners recognized this. However, historically, as well as currently, planners believed that problems encountered were surmountable and that the need for disability benefits was so great that the federal government had an obligation to address the issue.

This article explores the efforts of Social Security planners to establish a disability program in the United States and the history of the program over the past 50 years. It describes how the program has evolved and the internal and external influences that have affected its development.

This historical narrative concludes with a discussion of the 2001 report of the Social Security Advisory Board. Released in the same year that Jo Anne Barnhart was confirmed as the Commissioner of SSA, this report predicted that the projected growth in the disability programs would overwhelm the policy and administrative infrastructure of the programs unless fundamental changes were made. Commissioner Barnhart had been a member of that Advisory Board. Upon taking the reins at SSA, Commissioner Barnhart initiated a series of changes to address many of the concerns expressed in that report. A description of the Barnhart initiatives and their implementation are described in this issue of the Social Security Bulletin in a companion article, "Addressing the Challenges Facing SSA's Disability Programs."

The Creation of Social Security and the Debate Over Disability Insurance

State-sponsored insurance against job-related injuries, sickness, old age, and unemployment were common in Europe before 1930. Progressive Era social workers and social scientists in the United States had long advocated the introduction of social insurance programs similar to those that existed in many European countries.1 However, reformers had made little progress during the 1920s. They were hampered not only by the opposition of some business interests but also the skepticism of organized labor, which was suspicious of government intervention and the motives of middle-class reformers. But the political climate became more favorable with the arrival of the Great Depression.

Foundation for the Disability Program: 1935 Report of the Committee on Economic Security

One factor that influenced the establishment of Social Security in the United States was the Townsend Old-Age Revolving Pension Plan movement in the early 1930s. …

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