KAI RYSSDAL: It could happen to you today on the way home from work. Or it might never happen. An injury or a medical problem that disables you and keeps you from working, or getting paid.
Some have disability insurance through their employers. But for those who don't, turning to the federal government for help could put them at the end of a very long line.
NANCY MARSHALL-GENZER: Most of us think Social Security is for retirees. But back in the 1950s, Congress decided it should also cover the disabled.
Now, there's a huge backlog of about 700,000 people. They all applied for disability payments, were turned down, appealed, and got in line for a hearing.
Fifty-two-year-old Dexter Green is coping with severe heart disease while waiting for his turn in Washington, D.C. This is how he describes his nearly three-year wait:
DEXTER GREEN: Pacing back and forth in the house, wondering what's going to happen the next day and stuff.
Green is also wondering how much longer he'll have a roof to pace under.
GREEN: That's the kitchen. This is the dining area right here.
Green is awfully proud of his tidy apartment. But his rent money is running out. He worked as a janitor until the chest pains became unbearable.
Green's doctor told him to quit and schedule a heart bypass operation immediately. But Green doesn't want to have the surgery until he gets an answer from Social Security. He wants to know he'll have steady benefits to pay the rent.
GREEN: Because if I had the surgery, and I don't have no place to stay because of the Social Security, I'm stuck. I mean, I'm out on the street trying to get well.
Green's lawyer, Vytas Vergeer of the nonprofit group Bread for the City, is trying to keep his client off the streets. But it's not easy. The Social Security appeals process is extremely complicated.
But the thing is, once people get a chance to make their cases before a judge, about two-thirds of them win.
VYTAS VERGEER: And we're 60 and 3 over the last few years, so we win virtually always. And I don't know that we're brilliant, I think it's just that the people haven't looked at the claims carefully enough or gotten the right information until we were able to present all of the clients' information.
Vergeer knows that Social Security has to weed out frauds. But he says the agency doesn't have enough money or staff.
Jo Anne Barnhart would agree. She was the commissioner of Social Security for the past six years.
She came up with some solutions, like computerizing the appeals process and hiring more lawyers. But that costs money. Over the years, she'd try anything to get more funding. One year, she had a team of employees create a 25-foot chart of the appeals process. They dragged it along to a congressional hearing.
JO ANNE BARNHART: And when I got up to speak, members of that team stood behind me and unrolled it for the members of Congress. And I will tell you, that committee, from the moment they saw that, they went "Hah." You could just sort of hear all the air, you know, leave the room. And everyone knew that we had to do something.
They may have had the wind knocked out of them, but lawmakers didn't give Barnhart any more money. Now that Democrats are king of Capitol Hill, will things be any different?
BILL FRENZEL: I don't think it's going to be easy for them to beef up the budget of the Social Security Administration.
That's Bill Frenzel. He served in Congress from 1971 to '91 and is now at the Brookings Institution. He says Democrats will be reluctant to consider expensive fixes.
FRENZEL: But if their hearings indicate that it is really needed, it will happen. But it takes a while, unfortunately.
Congress hasn't scheduled any hearings yet, and people like Dexter Green are running out of time.
With his heart condition getting worse, Green confronts mountains of Social Security forms.
GREEN: See, my name, Social Security number . . .
Green says he hopes all the paperwork will lead to a judge, who will hear him out and make the decision he's put his life — and surgery — on hold for.
In Washington, I'm Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.