dren and adults with mental retardation are a large group of recipients, particularly in the SSI program. Prevalence data on the severity of mental retardation, from mild to severe, in this program (and in the DI program) are not available. We then note that these programs serve as a gateway to other critical federal and state benefits—most notably, Medicaid and Medicare. The linkage between SSI and DI benefits and other service programs underscores the importance of such eligibility for people with mental retardation and also raises the political, social, and economic stakes regarding any changes in eligibility criteria and determination procedures. We also discuss the enduring problem of unemployment and underemployment of adults with mental retardation, a fundamental issue undergirding the important role of federal benefits for this population.
According to the Office of Research, Evaluation, and Statistics of the Social Security Administration, in December 2000 almost 850,000 children were receiving SSI benefits. These children represented 12.8 percent of the over 6.5 million SSI recipients. Almost two out of three (62.5 percent) of these children had a disability based on a mental disorder, and most of them (32.8 percent of all children, or 261,200 individuals) were eligible because of mental retardation. The incidence of mental retardation as the primary diagnosis for young recipients increased with age, from 3 percent of those under age 3 to 46 percent of those ages 13-17.
Data on adult recipients of SSI as of December 2000 indicate that of the 226,792 recipients between ages 18 and 21, 50 percent were eligible because of mental retardation. The percentage of those receiving SSI due to mental retardation by age group gradually decreases with advancing age, from 45.7 percent of those ages 22-29, 33 percent of those ages 30-39, 18.6 percent of those ages 40-49, 10.7 percent of those ages 50-59, and 6.9 percent of those ages 60-64. This pattern likely reflects the increasing numbers of people with other disabilities