Survey Statistics: Who Is Most Likely to Get Approved for Social Security Disability Benefits?

Updated 4/14/2023

It's not easy to get SSDI or SSI, but our survey highlighted several factors that can increase your chances of being approved for benefits.

How hard is it to get Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits if you have a serious medical condition that makes it hard for you to work? We surveyed readers across the U.S. who recently went through the process of applying for SSDI or SSI to learn more about their experiences. Here's what we learned about the outcome of their disability claims, as well as some of the things that made a difference in their chances of success.

How Hard Is It to Get Social Security Disability?

As anyone who's been through the process will tell you, it isn't easy to get Social Security disability benefits. Our survey backed up that general impression. Overall, only about four in ten (42%) of our readers were ultimately approved for benefits.

Of course, the outcome of your individual claim will depend on whether you meet the medical and other eligibility requirements. Still, many people who sincerely believe they're too disabled to work aren't able to get benefits. Are there certain characteristics or circumstances that make some claims more likely than others to be approved? Our survey confirmed what you might suspect: It's easier to get benefits for some medical conditions than others (see our survey results on disability approval rates for common medical conditions). But the results also pointed to other, less-obvious factors that make a difference.

Are My Chances Better If I Appeal?

First, some background on the procedure of applying for SSI or SSDI. After you submit an application, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will start out by deciding whether you meet the financial and work-history requirements for SSDI or SSI. If you don't, you'll receive a nonmedical, or "technical," denial.

If you advance to the next stage, a disability examiner will then put your application through a five-step medical evaluation. For more details, see our articles on technical disability denials and the SSDI/SSI determination process.

Few applicants make it through both of these stages successfully. In fact, more than three-quarters (77%) of our readers told us their applications were denied at the initial application level.

It's worth pointing out that this percentage included technical denials as well as denials based on medical eligibility for disability benefits. According to government statistics for applications filed in 2021, many people receive technical denials: 39% for SSDI applicants and 20% for SSI. In that same year, approval rates at the application level based on medical eligibility alone were 48% for SSDI and 44% for SSI. This means that applicants who meet the nonmedical requirements of SSDI or the financial requirements of SSI have a better chance of winning benefits.

When the initial denial is for a medical reason, applicants can appeal the decision by requesting a hearing. Our survey showed that approval rates at the hearing level were nearly twice as high as at the initial application stage. For more details, see our statistics on how requesting a hearing affects your chances of getting Social Security benefits.

Does It Matter If I Applied for SSDI or SSI?

While many disability applicants tend to use the terms SSDI and SSI interchangeably, the programs are different, even though the steps used to determine whether you're disabled are the same for both. SSDI eligibility is based on your work history and how much you've paid into the insurance program by way of payroll (FICA) taxes. SSI benefits are available to anyone, regardless of their work history, who has income and assets below a certain (low) threshold.

Most applicants who are eligible for SSDI prefer to get those benefits because they pay more. In 2023, the maximum monthly payment for SSDI is $3,627 (with an average closer to $1,480), while maximum SSI benefits in 2023 are $914.

The downside to the SSDI program is that your eligibility for SSDI can "expire." Your last date of eligibility for SSDI is called the date last insured. SSI doesn't have a date last insured, but even modest earnings or a small amount of assets—$2,000 for one person or $3,000 for a couple—can disqualify you from receiving the benefit.

About half (51%) of readers who applied for SSDI were ultimately approved for benefits, compared to just over a third (36%) of SSI applicants. Our survey pointed to several factors that could account for this difference in outcomes, including the fact that SSI applicants were less likely to hire a lawyer—35% hired a lawyer, compared to 49% of SSDI applicants—and were more likely to be women. We'll take a closer look at some of these factors below.

SSDI Approval Rates

Seven in ten (70%) of our readers were denied for SSDI benefits at the initial application stage. If that seems discouraging, there are a couple of important points to keep in mind. First of all, the number of denials includes people who were turned down for lack of work history or recent work, or because they were still working at the time they applied. According to the Annual Statistical Report for SSDI, for applications filed in 2020, 44% of SSDI applicants receive technical denials. If you look at initial decisions based on medical reasons alone, government data show an approval rate of 41%.

Second, you can appeal a medical denial by requesting a hearing before an administrative law judge (although applicants must request a reconsideration review first). Our survey shows that the chances of getting benefits improve significantly once a judge reviews your case. Of readers who went to a hearing, more than half (55%) were approved for SSDI at that stage of the process—nearly twice as many as those who got approvals at the initial stage. So when applicants who are eligible to request a hearing simply give up or miss the deadline for filing an appeal, they lose a good chance to receive benefits.

For details on the factors that improve your chances at a hearing, see our survey results on the odds of getting benefits after a disability hearing.

SSI Approval Rates

Only one in five (20%) of our readers who applied for SSI successfully made it through both of these initial financial and medical steps. According to the Annual Statistical Report for SSI, in 2020 23% of SSI applications were denied because they didn't meet the financial requirements. Data for the same year show a 38% initial approval rate based only on medical eligibility—considerably higher than for all SSI applications at the application level.

But a denial after an initial application isn't necessarily the end of the process. SSI applicants can appeal a denial by requesting a hearing before an administrative law judge. Once our readers got to the hearing stage, their chances of success more than doubled; more than four in ten (43%) of SSI applicants were approved for benefits after a hearing.

Despite that huge improvement, less than half (47%) of those who were initially denied actually requested a hearing—passing up their best opportunity to receive benefits.

Overall, a little over a third (36%) of our readers who applied for SSI were ultimately approved for benefits.

Applying for Both SSI and SSDI

Some of our readers applied for benefits from both SSI and SSDI at the same time. This is known as "concurrent benefits." Government data for 2021 showed that 9% of those who received disability benefits got concurrent benefits, while 62% received only SSDI and 29% received only SSI.

Applicants might receive concurrent benefits when they've worked enough to qualify for SSDI, but their benefits under that program are so low—probably because they worked intermittently or earned low wages—that they also meet the financial eligibility requirements for SSI (assuming they don't have many assets). When that's the case, and applicants are approved for both programs, their combined benefits may be increased up to the SSI maximum. You can learn more in our article about how concurrent SSDI/SSI benefits work.

Our survey showed that concurrent applications had poorer outcomes than other claims. Only 15% of readers who filed for both programs were approved at the initial application stage, while the approval rate more than doubled (to 36%) at the hearing stage. That's still lower than SSI-only applications and considerably below SSDI-only approval rates.

Why the lower approval rate for concurrent applications? People who apply for benefits from both programs tend to be younger and are more likely to apply when the labor market is poor. This means that concurrent applicants are more likely to be only marginally qualified for disability benefits. And according to a report from Social Security, concurrent applicants are more likely to file for mental conditions (like depression) and musculoskeletal conditions (like back pain) than SSDI-only applicants. These conditions have relatively low rates of approval.

What If I Haven't Seen a Doctor Lately?

The strength of your medical evidence is critical for proving your claim. Clearly, you should see a doctor or other medical professional in order to create that evidence. One-third of our readers said they had not seen a doctor or other medical professional in the year before they applied for disability. Not surprisingly, these readers were much less likely to receive benefits (21%) than those who had seen a doctor (46%).

SSI applicants in particular may have had problems seeing a doctor because they're more likely to not have health insurance. Our survey results back up this observation: Although a small percentage of readers hadn't seen a doctor for their medical condition in the year before they applied, SSI applicants were four times as likely to be in that situation as SSDI applicants (12% compared to 3%).

Having a supportive doctor—who has treated you for years and can provide solid documentation on your medical conditions and limitations—can be the most important difference between being approved or denied for disability benefits. If you don't have a history of recent medical visits, you might be able to prove you had a good reason for not seeing a doctor (for instance, because you didn't have insurance and couldn't afford it), but the odds are against you.

Will I Be Denied If I'm Still Working?

Some of our readers were still working when they filed their SSDI or SSI applications. Less than three in ten (29%) of those applications were approved for benefits, compared with more than five in ten (51%) of those who had quit work within the five-month period before applying. This isn't surprising, since applicants who are working over the limit that Social Security allows are instantly denied. Even if you're earning under the allowed amount, it can be much harder to prove that you're disabled if you're doing any work.

But Social Security's claims examiners and judges also appreciate a long employment history, so being out of work for a long time might be a problem as well. That may explain why the approval rates were somewhat lower (36%) for readers who'd been out of work for 150 days or more when they applied.

For example, many SSI applicants haven't worked much over the years. Even though the SSI program doesn't have SSDI's work-history requirements, Social Security claims examiners and judges are less likely to believe that your disability is what's preventing you from working if they don't see evidence that you've at least tried to work.

Is Age a Factor in Approval Rates?

Our survey revealed an upward curve in approval rates for SSDI from younger readers to those in their sixties. About half of readers age 50 or older were ultimately approved, while nearly two-thirds of those in the 60-65 age group received benefits. Social Security recognizes that people in their fifties and sixties are more likely to have medical conditions that have deteriorated to the point where they can no longer work, and Social Security's "grid" rules support this reality.

SSI applicants and recipients tend to be younger. According to government statistics on the demographics of disability beneficiaries, the average age of SSDI recipients is 54.5, while the comparable average for SSI recipients is 44.7. Many medical conditions deteriorate with time and age, so Social Security is more likely to recognize that older applicants are too disabled to work.

Are Men or Women More Likely to Get Benefits?

Our survey revealed a gender gap in the approval rates for men and women. Nearly five in ten (44%) male readers saw their applications approved, while less than four in ten (38%) female readers had successful outcomes.

This may be related to the fact that a higher percentage of women have the kinds of medical claims that are more difficult to get approved. For example, compared to men, a higher percentage of women had mental conditions or musculoskeletal impairments, such as knee and joint problems (67% for women and 60% for men). In general, it's harder to get approved for these types of problems.

Similarly, 65% of readers with depression and other mood disorders were women, while only 34% of those who listed cardiovascular problems were female. Mood disorders have significantly lower approval rates than cardiovascular conditions. Men were also more likely than women to suffer from respiratory problems, injuries, and cardiovascular disease—all of which have higher-than-average approval rates.

Women are also less likely to be insured for SSDI because of fewer years of work (almost 80% of men are insured for SSDI while only about 70% of women are insured), meaning they're more likely to have to apply for SSI. That means a higher proportion of SSI applicants are women—56% of our readers, compared to 49% of SSDI applicants. Our female readers were also somewhat more likely than the men to have applied for SSI—14% of women, compared to 11% of men. Because SSI applications are, on average, less likely to be approved, this affects women more than men.

Does My Location Determine Whether I'll Be Approved?

Where a claim is reviewed has an effect on approval rates too. Disability Determination Services (DDS) offices in various states have different rates of approvals, just as hearing offices in different states have different rates of approvals. Even within one hearing office, the percentage of favorable decisions issued can vary between judges. One judge may approve only 30% of their cases while another judge in the same hearing office may approve 60% of their cases.

A Social Security study published in 2018 found quite a bit of geographic variation in disability rates and approval rates. The study found that the variation stems from differences in health as well as differences in socioeconomic factors like access to health care, education, and unemployment rates. To find your state's approval rates at the initial disability application state and after appeal, see our state disability resource pages.

Will Having a Lawyer Improve My Odds?

Readers who had an attorney's help at some point in the process were nearly twice as likely to be approved for benefits as those who represented themselves—60% for those with lawyers compared to 33% for those who went through the process on their own.

Having a lawyer with you improves your chances of approval whether you're applying for SSDI or SSI benefits. This is because disability attorneys know what medical evidence to gather and can recognize when your records need updating. Attorneys also know how to cross-examine vocational and medical experts, and can prepare you to answer questions helpfully at the hearing.

The Take-Away on Disability

Applying for Social Security disability can be a complex, lengthy, and frustrating process—one that's made even more difficult by the fact that you're probably dealing with money problems along with your medical issues. But our survey results should offer some hope as well as strategies to tilt the odds in your favor: See a doctor if you can. Don't give up if your application is denied at first. Do what you can to show that you tried to work but your disability stopped you.

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