Social Security Facts


by James Gashel

The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program pays monthly cash benefits to people under age sixty-five who have worked a sufficient amount of time in Social Security-covered employment or self-employment, provided they are blind or disabled under the law. Licensed vendors in the Randolph-Sheppard program are presumably blind under the Social Security Act since the definition of blindness used in both laws (Randolph-Sheppard and Social Security) is identical. However, that does not mean that every blind vendor automatically qualifies for an SSDI check.

This article is written to respond to the many questions which continue to arise from vendors or persons assisting them in determining their potential eligibility for SSDI checks. In many respects the circumstances under which vendors operate and receive their income are unique and have unique implications that must be understood to deal effectively with Social Security issues. Social Security personnel can apply the requirements of the law correctly only if we are able to give them the facts they need to evaluate income and earnings. This is particularly important for vendors and their advocates. However, many of the facts and concepts presented here apply to all blind persons in dealing with Social Security. Nevertheless, we will highlight the particular considerations that apply in the case of vendors.


Being Fully Insured

For the blind there are three principal eligibility factors which are necessary to entitle an individual to receive SSDI benefits: blindness, being “fully insured,” and having stopped doing “substantial work.” For those who are not blind, there is a fourth requirement, being “recently insured.” You need to have worked the required time under Social Security-covered employment or self-employment. The amount of past work required of any blind person is a matter of individual determination, depending on when the person became age twenty-one and the year in which blindness began, or  (if blind before or while working) the year in which the person stopped doing substantial work. For blind people who became age twenty-one in 1950 or later, quarters of coverage are calculated as follows: one quarter is needed for each year elapsing after the year age twenty-one was attained, up to and including the year before the person became blind or stopped doing substantial work, whichever occurred later. For blind people who became age twenty-one before 1950, the years that are counted to have enough quarters of coverage begin with 1951 up to the year before blindness or the loss of substantial work occurred, whichever came later. It is not required that quarters of coverage be earned in any particular year. It is only that the number of quarters (regardless of when earned) needs to total the number of years required for each individual. Younger people who became blind or stopped doing substantial work in their twenties, for example, can qualify with as few as six quarters, but no less. Older people will need substantially more quarters.

Any blind person who has enough quarters of coverage as described here is called “fully insured.” The Social Security Administration will tell you how many quarters of coverage you have. During 1991 a quarter of coverage is credited for earnings of $540.00 received during a calendar quarter. Four quarters are credited with earnings of $2,160.00 for the calendar year 1991, regardless of when the money is earned during the year. The amount needed to earn quarters of coverage increases annually beginning in January of each new year.


Being Recently Insured

Being blind and being fully insured are the first two important eligibility conditions for SSDI checks. Disabled people who are not blind must also meet a third condition, which is called “recently insured.” They must have worked enough to earn quarters of coverage in at least twenty out of the most recent forty quarters. This means that a substantial number of their quarters of coverage must have been earned during at least five out of the most recent ten years. Social Security personnel sometimes erroneously apply this recent work requirement to blind people. But remember, the blind need only be “fully insured,” not “recently insured.”


Substantial Work

What does it mean when we say that a blind person has stopped doing “substantial work?” In addition to blindness and being fully insured, not doing substantial work is the third principle condition of eligibility for SSDI if you are blind. Generally, any blind person whose “countable income” is less than $810.00 per month in 1991 is not doing substantial work. The amount of time spent at work and the amount of actual labor or management work done does not count. Only income is evaluated in the case of blind people applying for SSDI benefits. Eight hundred ten dollars is the monthly amount allowed for “countable income” during 1991. Beginning January of each new year, the amount of “countable income” used to measure “substantial gainful activity” for blind persons increases by law.


Countable Income

All income is not necessarily “countable income.” Your real income before taxes may be much higher than the amount considered to be “countable.” Deductions to reach “countable income” may bring the income below the monthly amount allowed. If someone helps out in a vending business but is not paid, the reasonable value of the unpaid help should be deducted from the vendor’s income to reach “countable income.” The unpaid help is a bonus that must be subtracted to find the vendor’s “countable income.” The vending machine income that some vendors receive from machines that they do not operate or service should also be subtracted to reach “countable income.” This money does not reflect the level of the vendor’s work activity. The vending machine income is entirely excluded because it is a subsidy. But that is not true of income from vending machines that the blind vendor services. It must be counted.

“Unincurred business expenses” are another form of subsidy that must be excluded from real income to reach “countable income.” Although space for the vending facility is provided without charge in most instances, the value of the space is an “unincurred business expense.” Without the contribution of the space, the vendor would have to pay the cost; so the free space artificially inflates the vendor’s income. Its value should then be subtracted from the vendor’s real (before taxes) income. The building management should be able to provide an estimate of the charge per square foot if the space had to be rented. Free utilities are also an “unincurred business expense.” Their value can be determined. It is the amount of the utility costs (even though the vendor does not pay them) that should be subtracted from the vendor’s income.

“Impairment-related work expenses” should also be considered and subtracted from the vendor’s income. Paid help for clerical assistance, reading, driving, and other services of a work- and impairment-related nature can be deducted to determine “countable income.” Buying devices that are blindness-related and used in part (or entirely) for work is another for of impairment-related work expense. Monthly installment payments on accounts for equipment purchases can be subtracted to reach “countable income.” So can care of a dog guide or the purchase of some medications. Special transportation services, such as taxi fares when public transit is not available or cannot be used, are also deductible. Impairment-related work expenses can actually be any costs resulting from blindness and necessary (at least in part) for work.

In sum, real (before taxes) income is not necessarily “countable income,” especially in the case of blind vendors. The Social Security Administration is only interested in identifying “countable income” and will exclude other income that is not an accurate measurement of work. The exclusions include any subsidies, the reasonable value of unpaid help, unincurred business expenses, and impairment-related work expenses. Once these standard deductions have been made, “countable income” that is below the amount allowed will not be called substantial gainful work. If “countable income” is above the monthly amount allowed after all of the deductions have been made, substantial gainful work has been achieved, and eligibility for SSDI checks will stop after a trial work period is over. The trial work period will normally be over if there have been earnings of $200.00 in any month for nine months, not necessarily consecutive months.

Social Security Disability Insurance is insurance, not welfare. You have to earn entitlement by working and paying in during enough calendar quarters. Once you meet the eligibility conditions, benefits can then be paid. Being poor is not one of the conditions. Rich people also qualify for Social Security. The question of whether one agrees or disagrees is not really relevant. The law is the law. While the Social Security Act is not everything that it might be, the work incentives we have won give blind people the opportunity to get a foothold and begin to support themselves without abrupt termination of their Social Security benefits. Whatever one may think of the law, it is certainly better for the blind than it used to be. And the blind are not now lumped with other groups of the disabled, something which resulted from NFB efforts. Most disabled people who are not blind can only earn $490.00 per month before their SSDI checks are terminated. Moreover, they have a much harder time than the blind in establishing initial eligibility for benefits.

In numbers there is strength, but numbers alone are not enough. Knowledge and concerted action are also required. The National Federation of the Blind is a force to be reckoned with. It grows stronger every day. What would life for the blind of this nation be like if the National Federation of the Blind did not exist, and never had existed?