Brenda Powell had suffered a stroke and was in debilitating pain when she called the Social Security Administration last year to seek disability benefits.
The former Louisiana state office worker struggled at times to write her name or carry a glass of water. Powell, then 62, believed she could no longer work, and she was worried about how to pay for medical care with only a $433 monthly pension.
Although the Social Security Administration agreed that Powell’s condition limited the work she could do, the agency rejected her initial application for Supplemental Security Income. She had the choice to appeal that decision, which could take months or years to resolve, or take early retirement. The latter option would give her $302 a month now but might permanently reduce the full Social Security retirement payment she would be eligible for at age 66 and 10 months.
“I didn’t know what to do. These decisions are not easy,” said Powell, who lives in Alexandria, Louisiana, about 200 miles northwest of New Orleans. She decided to appeal the decision but take early retirement in the meantime.
“I had to have more money to pay my bills,” she said. “I had nothing left over for gas.”
Every year, tens of thousands of people who are disabled and unable to work consider taking early retirement benefits from Social Security. The underfunded federal disability system acknowledges that it is stymied by delays and dysfunction, even as over 1 million people await a decision on their benefits application.
The United States, which has one of the least generous disability programs among developed Western nations, denies most initial claims, leaving applicants to endure a lengthy appeals process.
At the same time, Social Security agents may neglect to explain the financial downside of taking retirement benefits too early, said attorneys who help patients file disability claims. The result is a growing population of vulnerable people who feel stuck between a proverbial rock and a hard place — to live with little money while they wait it out or agree to a significantly lower payment for the rest of their lives.
“They don’t have the luxury of waiting,” said Charles T. Hall, a disability attorney based in Raleigh, North Carolina. “The vast majority of people need the money now, and you can get early retirement benefits in two months or less.”
In a nation where more than a quarter of residents have a disability, Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income programs are intended to provide financial help to people who cannot work.