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What is the approval rate for Social Security Disability Benefits?

Thirty-eight percent of applicants who meet technical requirements are accepted initially, but 53% of applicants who appeal that decision are ultimately approved.

Today’s young workers have about a one in three chance of becoming disabled or dying before they reach retirement age, according to 2016 actuarial estimates from the Social Security Administration (SSA). To lessen the financial burden of disability due to loss of work, disabled workers can apply for SSA-administered disability benefits[1].

In December 2022, around 10.9 million disabled workers and dependents received disability benefits[2] in the United States. That’s around 5.4% of the adult population between ages 18 and 64.

Yet, some states have much higher percentages of people receiving benefits than others. For instance, in 2022, 10.7% of West Virginia’s adult population were receiving disability benefits.

Percentage of working-age adults receiving disability benefits by state in 2022

Percent of adults receiving disability benefits: 5.2%

What makes someone eligible for Social Security disability?

Each year, 2 million people[3] apply for one or both of the SSA’s disability benefit programs. To apply, an applicant must meet the SSA’s self-described “strict” definition of disability. They must:

  • be unable to participate in “substantial gainful activity” (i.e., earning more than $1,350 per month for non-blind applicants or $2,260 for blind applicants)
  • be unable to work in their previous field or another field due to their condition
  • have a disability that will last at least a year or result in death

Further, to qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), applicants must have worked long enough and recently enough in a job covered by Social Security. Alternatively, to apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the SSA’s second disability benefit program, applicants must have limited income and resources. Applicants can apply for one or both programs and the process for submission and approval is the same for both programs.

Some cases are expedited after application, such as those with diagnoses for acute leukemia, ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and pancreatic cancer or those determined by a “computer-based predictive model” to be highly likely to qualify. When an application isn’t expedited, the process can take months or years and may involve several appeals.

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What percentage of people get approved for disability benefits?

In 2022, about one in three processed disability applications was approved[4]. A large number of denials were due to applicants not meeting the Social Security Administration’s non-medical, or “technical,” requirements. For those who did meet these initial requirements, the approval rate was approximately 53%.

The path to approval for disability benefits can also extend beyond the initial application. Some applicants, after initial denial, embark on a series of appeals that can span months or even years.

To provide a clearer understanding of this intricate process, USAFacts has developed the following graphics to illustrate the journey past applicants have taken through the various stages of application and appeal.

Around 2 million people apply for disability benefits each year in the US.

Each square in the graphic represents 1,000 applications for disability benefits.

Waffle chart. 2,000 squares are arranged in a grid where each square represents 1,000 applications.

Applicants who don’t meet the SSA’s technical requirements (e.g., haven’t worked long or recently enough, weren’t covered by Social Security, etc.) are denied before their medical condition is officially assessed. Referred to as a “technical denial,” this was the outcome for about 43% of initial applications in 2021.

Waffle chart updates. 43% of squares move and are labeled “Denied for technical reasons”

For clarity, technical denials will be temporarily removed from the graphic to focus on applications that met technical requirements and received a medical review.

Waffle chart updates and the 43% of squares denied for technical reasons are removed, leaving only the 57% that met technical requirements visible.

After meeting the technical requirements, remaining applications were sent directly to applicants’ local Department of Disability Services (DDS) to determine if applicants meet both medical and non-medical requirements. In November 2023, applicants waited an average of seven months and fifteen days for a decision.

The national approval rate for initial applications was around 38%.

The remaining applicants who were denied had 60 days to appeal the decision.

Continuation of previous chart. The remaining squares split into two groups. 38% of them move into a group titled “Approved” and 62% move into a group titled “Denied.”

Time since initial application submission:
7 months, 15 days

Around half of applicants denied at the initial stage appealed the decision, according to an SSA report.

Continuation of previous chart. The “Approved” group remains unchanged, but the “Denied” group splits in half. One half is now labeled “First Appeal: Reconsideration” while the other is labeled “Denied and did not appeal further.”

To better understand the likelihood of an applicant appealing the decision ultimately being granted benefits, applicants who were approved or didn’t appeal their denial at the initial stage will be temporarily hidden from this graphic.

Continuation of previous chart. The squares labeled “approved” and “denied and did not appeal further” fade out completely, leaving only the appealed squares

Time since initial application submission:
1 year, 1 month, 13 days

The first step of appeal, called “reconsideration,” involves the application returning to the applicant’s local DDS to go through the same process with a different set of reviewers.

Around 15% of applications submitted at the reconsideration stage were approved.

The remaining applicants who were denied have the chance to appeal the decision a second time.

Continuation of previous chart. The colors of the blocks formerly labeled “Appealed” have changed, highlighting 15% that are approved.

Approximately 77% of applicants denied at the reconsideration stage appealed that decision, moving to the next round in the process: a hearing with an administrative law judge.

Continuation of previous chart. 15% of the blocks from the formerly “appealed” group move to “approved”. 23% of the squares that were marked as “denied” from the “appealed” group, move to the “Denied and did not appeal further” group. The remaining are now labeled “Second Appeal: Administrative Law Judge.”

Time since initial application submission:
2 years, 1 month, 20 days

Nationally, 51% of applicants who were heard by an administrative law judge (ALJ) were approved. This stage has the highest rate of acceptance for applicants.

Despite efforts to reduce the burden, the wait time at this stage can be months or years long. The national average in October 2023 was 372 days, but the average in some locations reached nearly 700 days.

Continuation of previous chart. 51% of the blocks labeled “appealed” in the last step are now highlighting the applicants who are accepted at this stage.

Of the applicants denied at the ALJ level, 35% appealed that decision and moved forward to an appeals council hearing.

Continuation of previous chart. The 51% of appealed blocks that were approved move to the larger “Approved” group which now contains 48% of all applicants who appealed their initial decision. 35% of the applicants denied at this level appeal the decision further. The remaining squares move to the “Denied and did not appeal further” group.

Time since initial application submission:
2 years, 10 months, 14 days

Approximately 1% of disability benefits cases heard in an appeals council were approved.

The remaining applicants were either denied (84%), dismissed (3%), or remanded back to the ALJ level (12%). All are displayed as “denied” here. These applicants have one more opportunity to appeal and have their case heard at a federal court.

Continuation of previous chart. The squares that were marked as “appealed” at the last step are now highlighting the 1% of disability cases approved at this level. The remaining 99% are marked as “denied”.

Time since initial application submission:
3 years, 8 months, 25 days

Just 3% of those denied in the appeals council appealed the decision further.

Continuation of previous chart. The squares that were marked as “approved” at the last step move to the larger “Approved” group and those marked as “denied” moved to the “denied and did not appeal further” group. Three blocks labeled “Final Appeal: Federal District Court” remain.

The federal court ultimately accepted around 1% of cases, or less than one square displayed here.

After navigating through up to four levels of appeal, about half of applicants who met technical requirements and appealed their initial decision are approved at some point in the process.

Continuation of previous chart. 1 square moved to the group labeled “Appeal approved” bringing its total to 48%. The other two squares move to “appeal denied and did not appeal further”, bringing its total to 52%.

Taken together with those approved and denied at the initial level, just over half of all applicants who met technical qualifications were ultimately approved for benefits.

Squares that were approved or denied without appeal during the first step of the process fade back in, revealing roughly 53% of applicants who met technical requirements are ultimately approved and 47% are denied.

When applicants who didn’t meet technical requirements are factored back in, around 30% of all applicants are ultimately accepted.

Squares that were approved or denied without appeal during the first step of the process fade back in, revealing roughly 30% of applicants are ultimately approved and 70% are denied.

Nearly half of all applicants who appeal their initial denial ultimately receive benefits, but the time from initial submission to decision can be substantial. According to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the median wait time for a decision on claims filed in 2010 was 561 days (approximately 1.5 years). This increased to 839 days (approximately 2.3 years) for claims filed in 2015.

In the same report, the GAO found that roughly 10,000 applicants die and 8,000 file for bankruptcy while waiting for a decision on their application.

While it’s too soon to know how long a final decision will take for claims submitted today, the wait time for an initial decision has increased 86% (from four to over seven months) between November 2019 and November 2023.

Learn more about this and other Social Security and Medicare programs.

Sources & Footnotes