Social Supplement Income and Social Security Policies for the Disabled: A Disincentive to Work

By Derek Manners

My name is Derek Manners and I’m currently a law student at Harvard Law School. I have been receiving SSI since I was 18 and SSDI once my mom qualified for it since I was 24 due to the fact that I am blind. When I graduate in May 2016, I plan to work at a law firm in DC making approximately $167,000 a year. SSI, SSDI, and Vocational Rehabilitation Services have played a vital part in allowing me to get this far in my career. Without the funding, I would not be nearly as successful. Nevertheless, the current structure of SSI and SSDI has been a direct cause of the fact that it has taken me about a decade to graduate with my undergraduate and JD degrees.

After working on President Obama’s election campaign in 2008 for a year as an unpaid volunteer, I quickly got a job at the Lighthouse for the Blind in Austin, TX so I could start saving up for college while I was awaiting residency. To my dismay, my effective pay, after SSI deductions were taken into account, was about half the minimum wage, despite my nominal wage being $8.00 an hour. Given that I had to commute 2.5 hours each way to work for $3.00 and change an hour, it just didn’t seem worth it.

So, I sat around for a year without a job until I finally had Texas residency and started attending community college. Because I was under the impression that owning a car that was more valuable than the 2009 asset cutoff would prevent me from maintaining SSI, my partner and I were not able to get a reliable vehicle. If I had a more reliable vehicle, I would have been able to take more classes to graduate faster at other campuses within Austin TX. I was relegated to taking classes that I could get to via walking or public transportation. This situation delayed my transfer to the University of Texas by an additional year. I did ultimately graduate summa cum laude in 2013.

This summer, I will be working at an internship, receiving $3,000 a week for 10 weeks at a top 40 law firm in the U.S. This will probably eliminate my ability to rely on SSI and SSDI for my third year in law school, despite the fact that every dollar I make will be subtracted from my financial aid. While this will likely not prevent me from graduating and probably won’t elicit a lot of sympathy from most folks, it should be noted that, in essence, this decision to work this summer will actually cost me money and require me to take more student loans. While I am hoping that this internship will turn into a job offer, if that prospect were not available, I would probably work for free doing something in the public interest field.

The asset and income requirements for SSI and SSDI have put tangible roadblocks in my path and have altered my decision-making in a way that is not beneficial for me or society in the long run. My story is also hardly the rule, it is the exception. Many people on SSDI and SSI will never have the chance to transition from these programs and will simply face the prospect of making an effective wage below the minimum wage while being penalized for saving money and being responsible. These policies prevent people from making decisions that will better their lives and increase the likelihood that they will remain on these programs indefinitely.

Many people like Derek face challenges because of current Social Security disability benefits policies.  You can help Kathleen and other young adults in similar situations by signing our CareerACCESS petition to reform current federal policies to allow young adults with disabilities to pursue their career goals and achieve independence. You can also follow CareerACCESS on Facebook and Twitter and share our updates and posts.