Academic journal article Social Security Bulletin

Earnings Histories of SSI Beneficiaries Working in December 1997

Academic journal article Social Security Bulletin

Earnings Histories of SSI Beneficiaries Working in December 1997

Article excerpt

This article looks at the history of earnings in covered employment for the 300, 000 disabled SSI beneficiaries who were working in December 1997. It provides background information on beneficiaries essential to SSA 5 efforts to help them return to work.


Disabling conditions previously considered to be permanent and total are no longer viewed as automatic barriers to work. Medical advances, improved accommodations in the workplace, and changes in the nature of work for the working disabled have allowed many disabled people to rejoin the workforce. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has followed those developments with a view toward encouraging people receiving disability benefits to consider returning to work. To effectively target SSA's efforts and evaluate their success, information about previous work histories of the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiary population is used to provide baseline data.

This article examines the earnings histories of 300,000 disabled SSI beneficiaries-one of the populations targeted by the expanded work-incentive measure under Public Law 106-70--who were working in December 1997. The article also investigates whether beneficiaries who are working have significant lifetime earnings and whether earnings patterns exist that might assist with SSA's work-- support activities.

SSI program records were matched to data in the Master Earnings File to explore the characteristics and earnings patterns before and after a person applies for benefits. The article addresses several questions:

* What are the general characteristics of disabled SSI beneficiaries?

* What are their earnings histories?

* Did they have an earnings record when they applied for SSI?

Of the SSI beneficiaries working in December 1997, most tended to be younger than other disabled beneficiaries, to have some sort of mental disability, and to have earnings well below levels that would suggest their eventual, complete independence from the SSI cash benefits program.

A look at past covered earnings revealed that the vast majority of SSI workers had a history of earnings before they applied for SSI benefits. Despite their severe impairments and age at the time of first eligibility, nearly 40 percent had earnings in 11 years or more. The amounts of those earnings were quite low, however, and were usually not high enough to preclude SSI eligibility.

Examining the years immediately before and after the point of application indicated whether recent pre-application earnings were consistent with postapplication return to work. Results were a bit surprising. They revealed that one-- third of the 1997 SSI workers had no earnings, and another 28 percent returned to work despite having no earnings in the 4-year period before application. Persons receiving SSI because of mental retardation seemed to have poorer earnings histories than other workers but were more likely to return to work after application. That may be explained by their younger ages or may reflect the outside assistance they received in responding to SSA work incentives.


The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program was begun in 1974 to provide monthly cash assistance to aged, blind, and disabled people who have limited income and resources. Since then, SSI caseloads have grown substantially, and the program has increasingly become one that serves the blind and disabled. In January 1974, about 40 percent of the beneficiaries were blind or disabled. By the end of 1997, that proportion had almost doubled, to 79 percent.

People found eligible for SSI payments on the basis of disability are not considered able to "engage in substantial gainful activity" (SGA).1 Nevertheless, an important goal of the Social Security Administration (SSA) is to help those beneficiaries return to work and to eventually become independent of the need for the cash assistance offered by the SSI payment. …

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