In American politics, partisan gridlock is the norm. It is therefore not terribly surprising that Congress has so far delayed reforming Social Security for retirees. After all, reforms to extend the program’s solvency would require increases to payroll taxes, cuts to benefits, or both – all politically toxic proposals. And the program’s trust fund is forecast to be solvent until 2035 – a virtual eternity in the political world.
Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is another story altogether. That program draws from a separate trust fund – one that is forecast to be depleted in 2016. If that happened, benefits could only be paid to the extent they were covered by incoming payroll tax revenue. That would mean an immediate benefit cut of some 20 percent to each and every disabled beneficiary.
One temporary solution is actually quite simple. A small portion of revenues from payroll taxes could be reallocated from the retirement program to disability. Reallocations are nothing new – Congress has enacted them at least six times already, most recently in 1994. According to Social Security Administration chief actuary Stephen Goss, shifting just one tenth of 1 percent of revenues would bring the forecast depletion date of both trust funds in line with each other.
To be clear, this would accelerate the depletion of the retirement program’s trust fund, and thus it is not necessarily a politically simple fix despite being logistically simple. But the reallocation itself would not result in any workers having to pay more in taxes, nor any beneficiaries – retired or disabled – suffering a cut in benefits. This should spare the measure from significant controversy, as past reallocations have been.
The SSDI program has recently faced intense scrutiny and criticism because of its rapidly swelling roll of beneficiaries. There is a sense among some that fraud is rampant in the program and that unemployed baby boomers who do not yet qualify for retirement benefits are freeloading despite being physically capable of work. This makes disabled Americans pawns in games of political brinksmanship as Congress argues over fiscal policies and debt ceilings.
The reality is that while examples of fraud may be found in the SSDI program, its growth was predicted by simple demographics. Baby boomers are nearing retirement age. The rate of physical disability among those age 40 is half that of 50-year-olds, which itself is half that of 60-year-olds. Moreover, women’s increased participation in the labor force over the last several decades means they are increasingly eligible for disability benefits.
Millions of Americans depend on disability benefits to make ends meet, and many more depend on retirement benefits for the same. Reforming both these programs in order to make them solvent long into the future may be a lengthy political process. In the meantime, reallocating funds to SSDI is the right thing to do to protect the livelihood of those who depend on it.