The first US Disability Program was the Civil War Pension program which began during the civil war in 1862. It provided benefits for soldiers with disabilities “incurred as a direct consequence of … military duty.” Widows and orphans could receive pensions equal in amount to that which would have been payable to their deceased solider if he had been disabled. In 1890 the link with service-connected disability was broken, and any disabled Civil War veteran qualified for benefits.
In 1906, old-age was made a sufficient qualification for benefits. So that by 1910, Civil War veterans and their survivors enjoyed a program of disability, survivors and old-age benefits similar in some ways to the later Social Security programs. By 1910, over 90% of the remaining Civil War veterans were receiving benefits under this program, although they constituted barely 0.6% of the total U.S. population of that era.
Following the outbreak of the Great Depression, poverty among the elderly grew dramatically. Around 1934 over half of the elderly in America lacked sufficient income to be self-supporting. A spurt of pension legislation was passed by several states in the years leading up to the passage of the Social Security Act. However, these programs were generally inadequate and ineffective. Only about 3% of the elderly were actually receiving benefits under these states plans, and the average benefit amount was about 65 cents a day.
The Social Security Act that we know was signed into law by President Rooselvelt in 1935. In 1939 it was amended to include spouses and minor children of retired workers and the family in the event of a premature death of a covered worker.
Disability benefits were added and enlarged to cover disabled persons of any age by 1960.
There have been multiple changes to the program recently – incentives to return to work and attempts to keep the program from running into the red. The baby boomers – the largest group of tax payers in SS history, are retiring. So more people than ever are going to be drawing retirement while less people are paying in. In order to keep the program from failing altogether, SSA is cutting benefits, delaying retirement age and trying to reduce fraud and abuse.
The generation of workers currently paying in cannot count on Social Security to be there when they hit retirement age. They cannot count on it for income replacement should a disability occur. There may be some benefits, but it will not be enough to live on. The idea of doing a little good for many being the objective means that no one can rely on this benefit alone.
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