As Americans prepare to celebrate the declaration of our nation’s independence, we should commemorate the disability benefits established in response. Although the Social Security Act of 1935 established the first substantive federal benefits available to the general public, there is an extensive history of U.S. policymakers approving monetary support for war veterans who suffered injuries during their service, starting with the American Revolution. The seamless establishment of these military benefits has led them to look quite different from the cash assistance eventually provided to disabled civilians.
What is particularly remarkable about veterans’ disability benefits, in addition to their early origins, is the strength and simplicity of their current structure. Today, veterans with service-related injuries receive disability ratings on a 0-to-100 scale, which then determines their benefit size. The system ensures that veterans with partial disabilities still receive support equal to the estimated earnings hit that their impairments cause.
That design starkly contrasts with the civilian disability benefit programs, SSI and SSDI. Medical determinations for those two programs are all-or-nothing: they pay only for total disability, not partial. When Americans do meet the necessary medical criteria for SSI and SSDI and qualify, the average benefits received are far short of the $3,622/month provided to each veteran with a 100 percent disability rating. The support is especially meager in the case of SSI, which provides a maximum benefit of $914/month.
Veteran benefits stand out in another key way: there are no financial limitations imposed on beneficiaries. Disabled veterans can pursue post-service financial opportunities without fear of losing their benefits. Eligibility for the monthly payments, ranging from $166/month for 10 percent disability up to the $3,622/month for 100 percent disability, is solely determined by a medical evaluation.
Meanwhile, SSI and SSDI have financial criteria that inhibit work and savings. Applicants must earn less than what is considered “substantial gainful activity”, $1470/month, to qualify. SSI beneficiaries are put in especially precarious positions, since they cannot hold more than $2,000 in assets. These requirements should be replaced with financial standards more in the direction of the veterans program.