Hundreds of thousands of women are caught in the worst backlog in the U.S. government: the wait to get a hearing to determine whether they will receive Social Security disability benefits.
The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program provides a safety net to former workers who are severely ill or injured, but nearly a million people are mired in the hearing-decision backlog, which averages 20 months long. Women—who are, on average, in their early fifties when they qualify for the insurance—comprise roughly half of the people who are receiving disability benefits. Now, they’re stuck in the midst of a national crisis.
Getting SSDI isn’t easy—especially when applicants are trying to battle their illnesses, avoid financial devastation and manage the stress of it all. Vanessa Hall from North Carolina drove a school bus for 18 years. When she got cancer and needed a double mastectomy, she went through a year of chemotherapy and experienced a number of complications, even before her doctor said she needed to stop working to concentrate on her health. She was initially rejected for disability benefits, but she appealed. Unfortunately, the average wait for a hearing in North Carolina is 658 days. Vanessa, whose personal wait time is now at 730 days, still has weeks to go before her scheduled hearing.
Women are at a particular disadvantage in the SSDI program, because they lag behind men in the average size of their benefits. Women who receive the benefits have spent a smaller portion of their adult lives in paid work than men, and the persistent wage gap forces them to do that work for lower pay. As a result, in December 2017, the average female worker with SSDI got a monthly benefit of $1,069—nearly 20 percent less than the average man’s benefit of $1,320.
Women also qualify for the benefits for different reasons. They are more likely to qualify because of mental or musculoskeletal impairments and more likely to have cancer, but less likely to have circulatory diseases or to have suffered catastrophic injuries.
Despite the disparities, the hearing backlog has taken its toll on both women and men—often to a disgraceful extreme. In 2017, more than 10,000 people died waiting to learn if they would be awarded insurance benefits that they had worked for years to earn through their FICA payroll deductions. That marked a 15 percent in such deaths than the number recorded in just the previous year. Today, the average wait time is 538 days, and the backlog is now a line of 800,000.
Bea Disman, the acting chief of staff at the Social Security Administration (SSA), reported during a congressional hearing last September that the agency was acting to address the huge backlog, but she also declared that resolution was still five years away. Since her testimony, almost no progress has been made in cutting wait times. Last year, Congress included $100 million to combat the backlog crisis in the big spending bill designed to keep the government operating, which has provided fresh hope for the growing number of women who have been shunned by a program that is supposed to help them when they most need it.
But the problem with the backlog is gender-neutral. Its causes are many. The Social Security Administration hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed leader since 2013, which has limited its ability to handle so gigantic a problem. The agency has also failed to meet its own hiring goal for administrative law judges and staff to conduct the hearings, even though it told lawmakers that additional hiring would be a major method for reducing the backlog. Only 600 judges have been hired over the past three years and only 132 in fiscal year 2017, which isn’t enough to meet the demand; the judges and others also say that new and unnecessary regulations and policies that only add to the burdens of all concerned and slow the hearing process.
The SSA was anticipating a dramatic increase in disability applications this year, and the agency warned last fall that no one should expect big cuts in wait time until at least 2022. For women like Vanessa Hall, that’s not good enough.