Does SSDI Discriminate Again Women?

Kristi Khughes May 14, 2018

According to Kathy Ruffing at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SSDI doesn’t discriminate. For many decades, however, most of its beneficiaries were men. But by several measures, women have gradually reached near parity in the SSDI program. Ruffing explores this and other trends in her recent article entitled “Women and Disability Insurance: Five Facts You Should Know.”  https://www.cbpp.org/research/social-security/women-and-disability-insurance-five-facts-you-should-know.


Fact #1- Nearly equal numbers of men and women now collect SSDI

Disability Insurance was added to Social Security in 1956, and for the first three decades, its beneficiaries were overwhelmingly men. Even by the late 1980s, male beneficiaries outnumbered female beneficiaries 2 to 1. But due to women’s increased participation in the labor force, they are now insured for disability benefits nearly on par with men. Moreover, women who are insured for disability benefits are now just as likely as men to receive them. Nearly equal numbers of men and women collect SSDI.


Fact #2 – Increasingly more women have earned insurance protection from SSDI

Women are still less likely than men to be insured for SSDI, but they have closed most of the gap. In 1980, women past their mid-thirties were only about half as likely to meet SSDI’s insurance criteria. Now they are about ninety percent as likely. As more women qualify for SSDI, they are less dependent on other programs, like Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Not surprisingly, for many years, sixty percent of working-age SSI beneficiaries were women. That figure has now slipped to just over fifty percent.


Fact #3 – Insured women’s rate of SSDI receipt has caught up with men’s

Today’s women are nearly as likely as men to be insured for SSDI and just as likely to collect it. Until the mid-1990s, insured women of any age were only about three-fourths as likely as insured men to receive SSDI benefits.  Now they are equally likely to do so.  In the 1970s, researchers noted the paradox that women reported higher rates of disability but were less likely even to apply for SSDI. Compared to men with disabilities, women with disabilities were less likely to collect Social Security, more likely to rely on a spouse’s earnings, and more likely to collect public assistance.


Fact #4 – On average, women get lower SSDI benefits than men

Although women now almost match men in terms of SSDI enrollment, they lag behind in average benefits. In December 2017, the average woman disabled worker received a monthly benefit of $1,069, nearly twenty percent lower than men’s average amount of $1,320.  Nearly fourteen percent of men, but only five percent of women, received $2,000 a month or more.


Why are women’s average benefits lower than men’s? Women receiving SSDI benefits have spent a smaller fraction of their adult life in paid work than men and work for lower pay. Three-quarters of men receiving SSDI in 2013 worked in at least ninety percent of the potential years between age 21 and the onset of disability, while only slightly more than half of the female beneficiaries did. Their past earnings also differed. On average, men earned about $43,000 annually in their top five earning years for men, versus $31,000 for women (in 2014 dollars). Lower benefit rates for women most likely contribute to women SSDI beneficiaries being more likely to live in poverty than their male counterparts and to qualify for SSI.


Fact #5 – The mix of disabling impairments is somewhat different for men and women on SSDI

Compared with men, women SSDI beneficiaries are somewhat more likely to qualify due to a mental health or musculoskeletal impairment. Women are more likely to have cancer, but less likely to have circulatory disease or to have suffered a catastrophic injury. Women receiving SSDI also experience lower mortality than do male beneficiaries.  As a result, they stay on SSDI longer, further boosting women’s share of the program.


SSDI is a critically important element of financial security for women workers and those who depend on them. Women as well as men now benefit almost equally from Social Security’s protection.