FYI on Applying for SSI

“What are obstacles to applying for Social Security?” was the question at the heart of David Waldfogel’s talk at last week’s incubator meeting on March 14. As an attorney for the Center of Public Representation, Mr. Waldfogel acts as legal representative for people whose Social Security cases have been denied. This Wednesday, he shared with us some advice he has collected from years of working with low-income clients.

Arranged in a U-shape around Mr. Waldfogel, the meeting stared with introductions as we mused on the question – what are obstacles to applying for Social Security we face in our own lives? After responding to the concerns and experiences of those gathered around him, Mr. Waldfogel jumped right in to clear up the confusion surrounding the Social Security system.

For Mr. Waldfogel, he sees lack of internet access and no reliable mailing address as the two biggest obstacles to applying for Social Security. Because the Social Security application is handled online, having internet access is critical for starting the application and contacting support if anything goes wrong. Having a permanent mailing address is just as important, because Social Security mails out updates on applications and applicants only have a 60-day window to appeal if their case is denied.

The key to applying for Social Security, he says, lies in the first question of the application: “Are you unable to work because of illnesses, injuries or conditions?” Social Security judges whether applicants qualify based on their ability to pursue “successful gainful activity.” In other words, whether they can work and make money. Mr. Waldfogel stresses, no matter what conditions applicants have, if it does not prevent them from earning money, then Social Security does not care.

That’s why Mr. Waldfogel advises applicants to present everything: therapy, emergency room, primary care doctor, medications, etc. He says that a common mistake people make is that they leave certain medical conditions out of their application. Because the combination of impairments is important to establish the whole picture of the applicant and make a stronger case for why they are not able to work, he says to report every single medical condition bothering the applicant when they apply.

Additionally, Mr. Waldfogel cautioned us against some of the other mistakes that people applying for Social Security make. A common misconception, he says, is that people need to see a doctor and have their full medical history in order before they apply. However, this is not the case – Social Security is the one responsible for collecting the medical information – and applicants who wait end up “cheating themselves” out of the time they could be receiving benefits. Furthermore, if an application is denied, he says, the worst thing you can do is to not appeal, thinking that you can just apply again. Mr. Waldfogel warns against dropping the appeal because not only do you lose all retroactive money (money they owe you that wasn’t given during the appeal), but you also go back to square one. Instead, he says it is better to persevere.

In the hour and a half together, Mr. Waldfogel guided us through a quick but comprehensive tour into how the system works. Not only clarifying the difference between SSDI and SSI (earned insurance vs. need based) and the various cutoffs for payments amounts (Maximum $750 federal + $114 from Massachusetts per month), but he also tackled tough questions about the participants’ own experiences and details about the bureaucracy of the Social Security system. After the meeting, I couldn’t help but feel that the meeting itself helped overcome a huge obstacle – lack of information. I left feeling enlightened.

By: Emily Ma

If you want legal advice or have been denied for Social Security benefits – especially more than two times – you can call Mr. Waldfogel’s office at 413-586-6024. If you win the case, the office collects 25% of your winnings or $6000, whichever is less. If you don’t win, then no fees involved. He emphasizes that he cannot help people apply for Social Security, only with appeals. For the actual application process, there are resources at Amherst Community Connections, including Jane Braaten, who is certified by Social Security to help fill out the application.