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Both sides cant be right
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Here is an email from Phil: "I think the Social Security disability program is a complete rip off. I know lots of people getting disability checks who don't deserve them. It seems like anyone can get on disability. Simply get a doctor to sign statement saying you are disabled, and the checks start rolling in. What can we do to stop this scam?"

Here is an email from Kathy: "I have been trying to get on Social Security disability for two years now with no luck. I am in constant pain and take enough medications every day to choke a horse. No one will hire me because of my medical history and my age. I've been told that everyone is turned down for disability the first time. But I have applied three times now and I still can't get benefits. I have statements from two different doctors saying that I am disabled. Do you have any suggestions?"

Here is an email from Dave: "This country is going to pot. And one big reason is because there are millions of undeserving people mooching welfare benefits off of the Supplemental Security Income program. They sit around doing nothing each month waiting for their SSI checks and their food stamps to roll in, and then they spend their food stamps on beer and cigarettes, or they gamble away their SSI check. This is the very definition of waste, fraud and abuse!"

Here is an email from Ellen: "I get a small Social Security widow's check. It's only $1,100 per month. That's my only income. With that money, I have to pay my rent and buy groceries. I tried to get SSI, but I was turned down. They said my income is too high. Can you believe that? I get a small food stamp allotment, but it's hardly enough to get me through the month. Is there anything extra I can get from Social Security or SSI?"

Welcome to my email inbox. Every single day, I get letters similar to these with people expressing diametrically opposite viewpoints. I find them so fascinating. And in the case of folks like Phil and Dave who gripe about alleged government largess, I find them so misinformed and so sad. Gosh how I wish that Phil could walk a mile in Kathy's shoes. And I would love it if Dave could sit down with Ellen and find out what it's really like to try to get SSI benefits in this country.

I know from my 40 years of experience of working with disability and Supplemental Security Income that Kathy's and Ellen's real life views of these programs are much closer to the truth than the rants expressed by Phil and Dave.

To qualify for Social Security disability benefits, the law says your impairment must be so severe that it will keep you from working for at least a year. Or, you have to have a condition that is terminal. Phil is simply dead wrong when he says all you need is a statement from a doctor indicating you are disabled and "the checks start rolling in!" Someone applying for disability benefits must provide medically documented proof of their condition. Frequently, they are sent to a "Social Security doctor" for further review.

About 65 percent of all first-time claims for disability benefits are denied. (Of course, that means that 35 percent are approved, belying the rumor that Kathy heard that all initial disability claims are automatically denied.)

The 65 percent denial rate is high, but that's because many people file for disability benefits out of desperation. They've been laid off, they can't find work, so they figure it can't hurt filing for Social Security disability benefits, citing whatever relatively minor ailments that might be afflicting them as their disability.

Unfortunately, there isn't too much I can suggest to Kathy to help her. If she'd been denied for Social Security disability once, I would tell her to file an appeal. If she'd been denied twice, I'd tell her to consider hiring a lawyer. But Kathy said she's filed and been denied three times. She might simply have to accept the fact that her condition simply doesn't meet the legal definition of disability. Or maybe she should talk to Phil. He must know the secret because he seems to think it's so easy to qualify for Social Security disability.

The Supplemental Security Income program is our country's major welfare program for the elderly and disabled poor in this country. SSI is managed by the Social Security Administration, but it is NOT a Social Security benefit and it is NOT paid for out of Social Security taxes. It is funded by general tax revenues.

I know from my emails that many people think as Dave does: that SSI (welfare) benefits are essentially handed out like candy by the government to anyone who comes up with a good hard luck story.

But Ellen's real hard luck story proves this is simply not the case. To get SSI, it isn't enough to be just down on your luck. You have to be downright poverty stricken. I think most of my readers would consider Ellen poor. Yet even with her very meager monthly income of $1,100, she can't get a dime of SSI money. SSI levels vary from state to state, but in almost all states, you won't start getting an SSI check unless your monthly income is less than $800 per month, and you have less than $2,000 in assets.

I defy any of my readers to try living on $1,100 per month. And then assuming they can't, I defy them to tell me that people on SSI are ripping us off!

And finally, I really don't have too much good information for Ellen. She is getting all that she can get from Social Security, and she isn't due anything from SSI. She might want to contact her local Area Agency on Aging office to find out if there are other programs or benefits for which she might qualify.