As jobs disappear, disability rolls grow

Social Security's disability coffer will dry up by 2016 thanks to pressure from the jobless. Photo: SSDI

WASHINGTON, September 22, 2013- Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is inarguably a necessary tool for ensuring that those who are physically unable to support themselves or provide for their families do not go hungry.

What it is not designed to do is bankroll adults who simply can’t find work.

Since the recession took effect in 2007, the number of former workers seeking disability insurance began to soar. Today, SSDI provides coverage to 11 million disabled workers and their dependents. The program saw the number of applicants spike by 21% from 2008-2009, and expanded by 76% between 2000 and 2012—costing taxpayers a record $135 billion in the last fiscal year.

That’s more than the government spends on food stamps and welfare combined.

It’s unlikely that such a significant chunk of the labor force somehow became physically impaired in the last few years. Disability benefits are simply going to the wrong types of recipients.

Last week, the Government Accountability Office revealed that SSDI paid out $1.3 billion to people who weren’t eligible for benefits between December 2010 and January 2013. That number likely represents only a fraction of the actual amount of improper payments made.


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Disability fraud runs so rampant because of subjective criteria that are inconsistently applied. Conditions such as a “bad back” that are difficult to document medically can be claimed as a disability once a worker becomes unemployed.

Many workers with relatively minor impairments, such as high blood pressure, will perform at their jobs without issue and then claim to have a disability once they fall out of work.

Recipients of SSDI often go on unemployment first, which only pays out for a few months to a year, then switch to disability. SSDI coverage can last for decades, and the program offers recipients no incentives to seek medical treatment or search for work.

The recent rise in Americans on disability has occurred in tandem with medical advances that help disabled people live fuller lives, including workplace accommodations, and with new labor laws that forbid discrimination against the disabled.

At the same time, the unemployment rate exploded, swelling from 5% in December 2007 to a peak of 10% in October 2009 and hovering high ever since.

Supporters of the current system still argue that the rise in the rolls are due to demographic factors like the rising number of women in the workforce and aging Baby Boom workers.

However, even when these changes are taken into account, at least 44% of the recent growth in disability is because of economic pressure, fuzzy eligibility rules, and a lack of incentives to get off the payments.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, SSDI has spent more money than it has collected in payroll taxes every year since 2009. The disability insurance trust fund is set to dry up completely by 2016. Despite the clear urgency of the disability program’s problem, few have voiced concerns, and even fewer have offered solutions.

Though most disability recipients don’t work, they are not counted in the unemployment figure, making them an easy group to ignore.

If Americans with real disabilities are to be protected, SSDI must see reform soon. Like many federal programs, disability has been stretched beyond its intended purpose and is now in danger of collapsing completely.

Unfortunately, Social Security and its component programs have long been the third rail of politics and, as a result, have fallen into grave disrepair. Not only does the heavy financial excess threaten the program’s future, it chokes the flow of aid to the people who truly need it.

Lawmakers need to put aside theatrics and come up with concrete ideas to cut out the waste of disability. 


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