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Guest Blog: Financial Social Work Model Can Help Social Security Beneficiaries


For almost 20 years, I have provided training and technical assistance to professionals supporting individuals with disabilities in returning to work, and using federal and state work incentives. Over time, it became clear to me that providing employment support and counseling on various federal and state benefits and work incentives are only a part of what is needed to financially stabilize beneficiaries’ lives and to help them to achieve a successful outcome.

According to the Social Security Administration:

  • The average Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit is $515/month (in 2012) which equals to income of only 55% of the federal poverty level for a family of one.
  • The average monthly Social Security Disability (SSDI) payment is $1125 (in 2012), equal to about 120% of the federal poverty level for a family of one.

This means beneficiaries are living in poverty or even below the poverty level.

In addition, individuals with disabilities are largely unbanked; they have little or no access to financial services such as savings accounts, access to credit, money transfers, insurance or pensions. Only 10% of individuals with disabilities own their own home – compared to 65% of working-age adults. This data is disconcerting.

The lengthy SSA disability determination process (which could take two years or more for some beneficiaries) often presents extreme emotional and financial hardship for those who have few or limited assets. Often those with assets lose them once they become disabled because they must pay for medical care, services, or basic food and shelter while unemployed and waiting for a favorable disability determination from SSA. Several federal and state assistance programs have limitations on eligibility for income and resources.

Additionally, Social security’s disability threshold for “self- sufficient earnings” is only $1,010 in countable earnings per month in 2012, which equals to just under $120% of the federal poverty level. Therefore, under the current program rules, many beneficiaries are reluctant to earn enough to have their benefits ceased

While counseling many people who have gone through lengthy waiting periods for benefit eligibility, I have realized that individuals become indoctrinated in the poverty lifestyle; they believe that any money they get is to be spent and not saved to maintain the needed public assistance.

A director of United Way IDA programs stated: “Only a few people coming through our programs choose to actually develop a savings goal. Individuals mostly want to spend the money (such as EITC and tax refunds) right away to pay bills or purchase things they have done without.”

Federal programs such as the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Ticket to Work, the Department of Labor’s Disability Employment Initiative and other demonstration projects are focused on getting people with disabilities into the workforce. While getting a job and having earned income is rewarding, there is a missing link to the employment continuum. This link is financial stability. Over time, I began to ask the question: “Do you ever wonder why the employment programs help so many people to get to work, yet they remain poor?”

It is possible for Social Security beneficiaries to achieve financial stability (Social Security policies do allow for asset development through federal Individual Development Accounts); yet navigating the various programs and the associated work incentives is an extremely daunting task for beneficiaries, their social workers, and counselors. Financial stability program personnel are not trained, nor are they expected to know the intricacies of the federal and state disability benefit policies.  Part II tomorrow.


About Our Guest Blogger:  Becky Banks is a technical liaison with Virginia Commonwealth University’s National Training Center with over 25 years’ experience in rehabilitation services.  She is an expert trainer in Social Security work incentives.