hand in airHistory of Social Security Disability

Relatives, friends and faith-based groups have historically been the predominate caretakers of people who were too ill or too old to work. However, this system has always allowed some people to fall through the cracks. Living off of donations barely allowed some people to subsist. Governments began instituting programs paid for by tax payers in an effort to create a better and more standard method of care.


Many of the United States colonial governments modeled their relief systems after English laws that provided for communal houses for those unable to work, work houses for those who could work, and prisons for those who could work but did not. Children were commonly placed to work as apprentices to learn a trade in order to provide for themselves as they got older.

Early History

In the 1800’s and early 1900’s as local, state and federal governments began hiring more people, these people banded together and began petitioning their specific government entity for more benefits resulting in many different programs and benefit structures for people like firefighters, police and teachers. However people working in the private sector were still left to fend for themselves in the best way they could find.

An over-arching social program was non-existent in the United States until 1932. In the 1800’s most people were still living a subsistence culture relying on their own skills for self-employment and growing or raising much of their own food. In the 1900’s life became more urban and people were employed by others ultimately making life more tenuous for millions. People no longer had their own vegetable gardens or small animals. Family size began decreasing and people no longer had the children to care for them and support the family. When a person became unable to work or lost their job, they subsequently no longer had the means to support him or herself.


The Great Depression of 1929 and early 30’s took its toll on the economy. Donations faith-based and other social groups relied on began to dry up and the available funds quickly began to deplete. The federal government responded by providing loans, then grants to states to fund social and work programs. In 1935 Congress passed the Social Security Act creating a foundation for providing retirement benefits. Other social programs were passed by Congress in the years following as lawmakers began to be both more socially conscious and also realized that there was often a correlation between granting people money and receiving votes in return.


In 1950 Congress passed legislation providing grants to states who administered programs to provide income for low-income disabled workers. Finally, after much debate and several failed attempts to get Congress to act, a disability program was passed in 1955 and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) became law in 1956. Many compromises were necessary by both Democrats and Republicans to get the bill passed. Among the compromises are the still active provisions that a recipient must be unable to work gainfully, the illness must be terminal or expected to last at least twelve months and the provision of a five month waiting period. Disability insurance was also based upon a principle that a worker had to pay into the system in order to receive benefits.

Between 1956 and 1960 disability benefits were only granted to those age fifty or older and the focus was on rehabilitation efforts, rather than simply providing an alternative income for working. However, the older people were poor candidates for rehabilitation due to age and the serious nature of many of their medical conditions. As a result, the first disability program essentially became an early retirement plan and did not achieve its goals of returning people to the workforce.

Supplemental Security Income for those who had not worked enough to qualify for SSDI came into effect in 1975 while other legislation reduced the age of acceptable recipients receiving SSDI thus creating a coverage plan for every citizen.


In the 1970’s the number of people receiving benefits became higher than had been estimated and the familiar cry of fund insolvency became louder. As a result, in the 1980’s legislators created the category system of illnesses and disabling conditions along with additional criteria in order for people to receive benefits. Some of the additional criteria were subsequently stopped by courts, however the number of people receiving benefits began to shrink and millions of dollars were saved pushing possible insolvency to later years.


Today, many Democrats are desirous to extend the offerings of disability benefits to even more people and increasing the amount of benefits given to each individual. Republicans, on the other hand are continuing their concerns with making sure the program remains solvent and available for all future generations. Republicans would also like to see the focus on rehabilitation continue so people have the opportunity to rejoin the workforce if possible.

To the Future

One thing is for sure, as the Social Security disability and Supplemental Security Insurance programs continue they will always provide fodder for disputes among political parties, Congress and constituents. The plans are doomed to changes every so often at the whim of those in political power, but one thing remains sure, no one who desires to remain in political power will broach the idea of removing these two programs. For the foreseeable future most Americans will be able to have benefits provided to them if they are physically unable to work gainfully.




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About the Cochran Firm Disability Lawyers
Recognized as one of the nation’s premier law firms, The Cochran Firm handles cases on behalf of clients seeking a Personal Injury Lawyer, Criminal Defense, Medical Malpractice, Bankruptcy Attorney in Atlanta or Social Security Disability Lawyer.The Firm can be reached at 1-800-THE-FIRM (1-800-843-3476) or fill out the form on this page. “Working for You.” Article by Benjamin A. Irwin, Esq.




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