Having a disability can present many challenges, especially when it comes to finances. For those receiving disability benefits, the amount received may not be enough to cover basic living expenses. This raises an important question: What if disability benefits are not enough money to live on?
What are the eligibility requirements for disability benefits?
To qualify for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA), you must meet certain medical and work eligibility criteria. This includes:
- Having a medical condition that prevents you from working and is expected to last at least one year or result in death
- Being unable to perform substantial gainful activity (SGA), which for 2022 is defined as earning $1,350 per month from work
- Having worked long enough and recently enough under Social Security to qualify for disability benefits
The SSA reviews medical and financial records to determine if you meet the requirements. If approved, you’ll receive benefits based on your previous earnings.
What is the average disability benefit amount?
The average SSDI benefit amount for 2022 is $1,358 per month, with a maximum monthly benefit of $3,345 for someone who earned the maximum taxable amount over their lifetime. SSI payments average $621 per month for an individual. Here’s a table summarizing the average monthly disability benefits:
|Program||Average Monthly Benefit|
|Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)||$1,358|
|Supplemental Security Income (SSI)||$621|
Benefit amounts are increased slightly each year based on cost of living adjustments (COLA). For 2023, the COLA is 8.7%, one of the highest increases in decades due to high inflation.
Is the average benefit enough to live on?
Whether the average SSDI or SSI payment provides enough to live on depends greatly on each person’s living situation. Some key factors include:
- Cost of living: Expenses are very high in some areas, especially for housing, food, utilities, and medical care.
- Family size: More people in a household mean more expenses.
- Other income sources: Disability benefits alone may not be enough without additional income from a spouse, family support, or aid programs.
- Medical costs: Many people with disabilities have significant healthcare expenses, including insurance premiums, medications, equipment, and more.
- Debt and expenses: Some individuals have high amounts of existing debt, loans, and bills to pay.
For many, disability benefits alone do not cover all their expenses. Here is a breakdown of average annual household costs compared to disability income:
|Expense Category||Average Annual Cost||Average Annual SSDI Income||Average Annual SSI Income|
|Insurance & Pensions||$7,929||$16,296||$7,452|
|Apparel & Services||$1,996||$16,296||$7,452|
As the table shows, disability income often falls far short of covering average living costs. SSI provides only 12% of the average expenses, while SSDI covers just 27%. This gap means many struggle financially while receiving disability benefits.
What expenses do disability checks need to cover?
Some of the main costs disability benefits need to help pay for include:
Housing tends to be most people’s biggest expense, including rent or mortgage, property taxes, utilities, maintenance, and repairs. Housing costs vary widely based on location, but often eat up 30% or more of a disability check.
Groceries and dining out are essential costs, with food prices rising due to inflation. Healthy food can be especially expensive for those with dietary restrictions due to disabilities.
Getting around, whether via public transit, paratransit, personal vehicles, ride shares, or other means is a necessity. Costs include fares, gas, car payments, insurance, repairs and maintenance.
Even with insurance, out-of-pocket costs for doctors, therapies, medications, equipment, and caregiving can be extremely high for people with disabilities and health conditions.
Personal care & disability equipment
These services and devices, such as in-home aides, wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, prostheses, etc., are critical for independence and wellbeing, but can be prohibitively expensive.
Many people have existing debt from student loans, credit cards, medical bills, and other sources that need payment each month, reducing funds available for current needs.
What happens when disability benefits fall short?
Some potential consequences when disability payments are inadequate to meet living expenses include:
- Inability to afford safe, accessible housing, transportation, and care
- Food insecurity, poor nutrition, and hunger
- Difficulty paying for utilities like heating or medical equipment
- High stress and anxiety over finances
- Accumulation of credit card debt and late fees
- Delaying or forgoing necessary medical care and prescriptions
- Cutting back on other basic needs like clothing or hygiene
- Reliance on overburdened family and friends for financial support
- Homelessness in cases of extreme financial hardship
Inadequate income puts health, safety, and wellbeing at risk. People may be unable to work, but cannot afford to meet their basic living expenses on disability benefits alone.
What steps can be taken if disability benefits fall short?
If disability payments are not enough to cover costs, some options to explore include:
Seeking subsidized/low-income housing
Rent burden is one of the biggest issues. Public housing, Section 8 vouchers, and income-based apartments can help lower housing costs.
Applying for SNAP/food stamps
SNAP provides monthly funds just for groceries based on income. Many people receiving disability benefits qualify.
Researching loan/grant programs
Some organizations offer low or no-interest loans, grants, or discounted services to help cover assistive equipment, home modifications, medical bills, and more.
Finding subsidies for utilities, phone, internet
Reduced-rate programs lower costs for essential utilities, phone/internet service, and public transit for eligible low-income households.
Using community food pantries
Food banks and pantries supplement groceries with free food. Many deliver to people with disabilities.
Asking lenders for lower payments
Lenders may be willing to reduce or defer loan/debt payments. Some have hardship assistance programs.
Seeking part-time work if possible
Some supplement disability benefits with part-time work, within limits before benefits are reduced. Work from home jobs provide flexibility.
Negotiating lower medical payments
Doctors, hospitals, and others may negotiate fees, offer discounts, or set up payment plans for the uninsured and those struggling financially.
Contacting elected officials
Advocating for policy changes like increased disability benefits and more affordable housing access can create systemic improvements.
With creativity and effort, people can combine resources and strategies to help make ends meet. But more action is needed to make disability benefits adequate to cover essential living expenses.
What changes could help improve disability benefit adequacy?
Some policy and program changes that could help improve the adequacy of disability benefits include:
- Raising payment amounts to better match the real costs of living with a disability.
- Creating more affordable and accessible housing dedicated to people with disabilities.
- Expanding food assistance programs like SNAP.
- Providing better low-income care options to reduce healthcare costs.
- Increasing enrollment in aid programs through outreach and simplifying applications.
- Funding more grants and programs to help cover disability-related expenses.
- Letting people on disability keep more of their earned income from part-time work.
- Adding subsidized transit options for people unable to drive.
- Supporting development of more workplace flexibility and home-based jobs.
Laws mandating regular, meaningful increases to disability payment rates could significantly improve financial security. Comprehensive policy reform is needed so adequate disability benefits become a reality.
Far too many Americans with disabilities face severe financial hardship and struggle to make ends meet. Current disability benefit rates do not cover the costs of food, housing, medical care, and other basic necessities for life with a disability or health condition. While programs and community resources can help fill gaps, increased disability income through policy changes is critical so people can live without constant financial stress and insecurity. With an improved social safety net, people with disabilities can focus on health, family, and quality of life instead of just trying to get by.