FORT WORTH, Texas -- Coming to grips with never again being able to work because of a debilitating disease on injury can gnaw at one's self-worth.
But 51-year-old John Tovar of Arlington never expected his spiral into full-on depression would come as a result of waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting ... just for the opportunity to state his case to qualify for Social Security disability benefits.
In Fort Worth, and across the nation, the system is backlogged to the point of near-absurdity. Local applicants can wait up to two years for a hearing before a judge, with many cities facing longer waits. A hearing is scheduled after applicants have already been denied -- as most typically initially are -- a process in itself that can take up to eight months.
And so as the bureaucratic clock creeps toward a hearing, many applicants are faced, month after month, with slashed household income, dwindling or drained savings accounts and often no option left but to pile car payments, mortgage payments, the electricity bill and prescriptions and groceries on to credit cards.
"Filing for disability was a last resort for me," said Tovar, who suffers from diabetes, nerve damage and carpal tunnel syndrome. "That's really one of the main reasons I did this because we've been a two-income family for the longest time, and now my wife is the only one working. It makes me feel pretty worthless. What kind of took me aback was when they finally set up the final hearing, they said it would be anywhere from 12 to 18 months.
"Why would it be 12 to 18 months?"
The short answer is a lack of appropriate funding of Social Security by Congress.
"It's just a lack of staff and it's tied directly to a lack of appropriations," said prominent disability attorney Charles Hall, whose law firm is based in Raleigh, N.C. "And it may get worse in the course of next year depending on what happens with appropriations in the budget office."
Social Security offices nationwide, including the downtown Fort Worth location, are understaffed and underfunded to handle the carousel of thousands of cases submitted each year. In Fort Worth, 10 administrative law judges are tasked with 5,899 pending disability cases, according to figures compiled by the Social Security Administration.
The average wait in Fort Worth for a hearing is 483 business days, or nearly two years. While it seems excessive, it's actually one of the speedier rates in the state and country. San Antonio's average wait is 527 days; downtown Dallas is 544; the Rio Grade Valley is a whopping 622 days. Applicants in Miami wait for a hearing on average 759 days, or close to three years.