A ‘60 Minutes’ report aired in 2014 about abuses of the Social Security Disability Insurance overpayments and Supplemental Security Income programs. Both SSDI and SSI have come under attack by Congress for perceived abuses by individuals of these Federal programs. The vast majority of recipients of SSDI and SSI benefits rely on those benefits as a baseline level of financial support while unable to work due to their disabling conditions. Individuals who qualify for SSDI and SSI are often the most vulnerable people in society and least able to advocate for themselves. Despite this, there is an increasing stigmatization against SSDI and SSI beneficiaries.

Impact of Social Security Disability Insurance Overpayments

When an SSDI or SSI claimant is no longer deemed disabled and unable to work by SSA, the claimant will be cut off benefits and is frequently assessed with an overpayment from SSA that must be repaid.

An overpayment occurs when Social Security determines that an individual received benefits that they weren’t eligible for and must repay the sum to Social Security. Recovery of this sum can include taking a person’s entire monthly benefit check until the debt is repaid. Recovery can also include withholding income tax returns or garnishing wages. http://www.socialsecurity.gov/ssi/text-overpay-ussi.htm

Despite being designed as a social safety net, Social Security can often leave some people in a worse position than when they started. Because the Social Security system is cumbersome and complex, it is a nearly impossible system to navigate by individuals who struggle with disabling conditions. Below are some examples of disabled individuals who were assessed with overpayments and found to owe thousands of dollars to Social Security.

Joe is deaf and communicates using American Sign Language. He began receiving benefits as a child and continued to receive them into adulthood. Despite his impairments, he was determined to work. He went to Social Security on three occasions to let them know he was working, but Social Security never had an interpreter present and Joe couldn’t communicate with them. He couldn’t get an explanation of the rules or disclose his earnings. Two years later, Social Security decided that Joe shouldn’t have been receiving benefits for the last two years because he had earned too much money at work. Now Joe owes over $30,000.

Tammy is the single mother of three children whose husband died, forcing Tammy from being a stay-at-home mother to the sole breadwinner. She relied upon Social Security survivor’s benefits to help make ends meet. Despite being just above the poverty guidelines, the Social Security Administration found Tammy had earned too much money and should not have continued receiving benefits for her 17-year-old. Despite express provisions in Social Security’s own rules for continued benefits for that child, Tammy was assessed with an overpayment for $28,900 and had her benefits terminated.

Yuri is a refugee who left his family back in his war-torn country that is allied with the U.S. Government. Yuri immigrated to the United States to avoid the fighting and to work for a living. Due to the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by prolonged exposure to a combat zone and the resulting carnage, Yuri experiences vivid nightmares and memories caused by his PTSD made it impossible to keep a job. Yuri began receiving SSI benefits to survive. Two years after receiving benefits, Social Security found out that Yuri owned a small hut in his home country and arbitrarily assessed the value of the hut, proclaiming it a domicile. Because of the “value” of Yuri’s hut, he is now over-resourced for SSI. Now, he’s cut off from benefits and needs to pay back the benefits he received for the last two years because of a small hut thousands of miles away that he can never return to.

None of these people are exploiting the Social Security system. They were attempting to work, to help their family survive, to escape war and they are our society’s most vulnerable population. Due to the complex nature of SSA’s own rules as well as the frequent misinterpretation of these rules by the SSA claim’s representatives, these individuals are being punished by a system designed to help them and that punishment often comes in the form of an overpayment.