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.
A story recently aired on National Public Radio (NPR) has sparked a national conversation on a federal government benefit program, including passionate defenses and calls for its overhaul.
The program is Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and as the NPR series “Unfit For Work” described, its payroll, after sharp growth in recent years, now numbers over 14 million. This growth is in spite of medical advances and laws banning employment discrimination based on disability.
NPR reporter Chana Joffe-Walt found that declining real wages, a stagnant economy, and limited employment opportunities create powerful incentives for disabled workers to seek SSDI. She visited Hale County, Alabama, where nearly a quarter of working-age adults are SSDI beneficiaries. There, openings for jobs not requiring physical labor are almost completely unattainable for many due to a lack of education. The states with the highest percentages of disability beneficiaries are also the states with the lowest percentages of college-educated population, including West Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
Joffey-Walt also visited the family of a 10-year-old boy with a learning disability in the Bronx. That disability makes him eligible for $700 per month in Social Security, the family’s primary source of income. If Jahleel were to completely overcome his disability and excel in his education, it would threaten his family’s livelihood. The story illustrated the conflicting motivations some families with benefit income struggle with.
A group of eight former Social Security Administration (SSA) commissioners wrote an open letter to the public responding to the NPR story. The commissioners pointed out that analysts at the SSA had predicted the current uptrend in SSDI’s growth for decades. Two demographic swells combine to account for the majority of the growth in SSDI: the baby boom and the influx of women into the American workforce in the 1970s and 1980s. These groups are now entering their high-disability years.
The letter added that the growth in children receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits is due to the nationwide growth in poverty. Less than four percent of low-income children receive SSI benefits – a figure that has held steady, according to the commissioners.
Advocacy group the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CDC) also published an open letter shortly after the story aired. They called attention to the strictness of the eligibility requirements, saying only about 40 percent of adult applicants are approved.
SSDI ensures the livelihood of millions of Americans, but has swelled at an eyebrow-raising rate in recent years. Congress may reform the program in the coming years to help those on the margin remain gainfully employed. But they must take care to ensure the economic security of the most vulnerable Americans.
Zephyrhills, Fla. – Social Security disability insurance is set to pay out close to $124 billion in 2011. Because of the limited resources of the Social Security Administration and the high volume of applicants, a staggering 60 percent of applicants are denied. And when individuals appeal for reconsideration, 80 percent are denied.
“With these discouraging numbers, it can be extremely beneficial to have an attorney handle your application and the potential appeals process,” said Robert Alston, Social Security disability attorney at The Disability Law Firm in Zephyrhills, Fla. “An experienced lawyer will help their client organize the paperwork and medical records, prepare you and witnesses for hearings, and know how to deal with the SSA offices and judges.”
Avoid these common mistakes and pick a qualified attorney to get the benefits you deserve. These errors are repeated so many times, it is worth pointing them out in a short list to increase the prospect of getting SSDI.
Do not file a disability claim while having a job. When applying for SSDI, individuals are claiming that they need benefits because they are unable to obtain or perform substantial, gainful employment. Chances of being awarded disability while working are slim, even though there is no rule against it.
Do not rely only on the consultative exam. Individuals must have enough medical evidence to support their claim. When used in tandem with the consultative exam, a disabling condition is easier to prove. On its own, the consultative exam might not show the truly extensive nature of a disability.
Do not skimp on prescribed treatments for your disability. It does not do any good to stop prescription medicine or therapies to have your disability appear worse. The Social Security examiner will want to see the history of treatments, and how well you have responded to it. And if an individual does not follow the recommendations of his or her doctor, an application can be denied on these terms as well.
Statistics show that individuals who have an attorney represent them during the initial application process are more likely to receive benefits than those who try to do it themselves. “And you should never feel like you cannot afford an attorney for this type of representation,” said Alston, who has more than 10 years experience in Social Security disability claims. “Social Security attorneys work on a contingency basis, so once you are approved for disability benefits only then will your lawyer receive up to 25 percent of your disability back pay as a fee.”