(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a
columnist for Reuters.)
By Mark Miller
CHICAGO, June 15 Quiz time: what do the letters
“SS” stand for in SSDI?
If your answer is “Social Security,” congratulations. You
know that Social Security Disability Insurance is part of Social
Security. That seems obvious, but the Trump administration wants
you to think otherwise.
“If you ask 999 people out of 1,000, (they) would tell you
that Social Security disability is not part of Social Security,”
Mick Mulvaney, the administration’s budget director, said in May
at a press briefing on its 2018 spending plan. “It’s old-age
retirement that they think of when they think of Social
Mulvaney was explaining a proposed $72 billion spending cut
in disability benefits and Supplemental Security Income, to be
spread over 10 years. The likely intent was to wriggle away from
President Donald Trump's campaign pledge not to cut Social
Mulvaney does have a point - most people do think of
retirement when they think of Social Security, due to the
universality of retirement benefits. But despite his claims on
popular perceptions of Social Security, Mulvaney’s attempt to
separate SSDI from Social Security is dangerous and could have a
very corrosive effect.
Hacking away at the disability insurance program is an
attack on the very idea of social insurance. The fundamental aim
of Social Security is to protect against the risk of lost income
from work, whether from retirement, disability or the death of a
Disability insurance was added to the program during the
Eisenhower era. Workers and employers alike contribute to the
disability insurance fund through their payroll tax
contributions. (Currently, 2.37 percent of the total 12.4
percent payroll tax goes into the disability fund, split evenly
between workers and employers.)
Workers qualify for benefits by working the equivalent of at
least 10 years - just as they do for Social Security and
Medicare, although the number of work credits required for
disability are adjusted for age to accommodate younger workers.
So disability protection is an earned benefit, no different
than retirement coverage. But SSDI often is attacked as though
it were a government handout.
Indeed, the administration's proposed cuts come alongside
appalling cuts to other programs that assist the vulnerable,
including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Children’s
Health Insurance Program, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for
Republican opponents of SSDI often argue that disability
spending is out of control, and that more beneficiaries must
return to the workforce. “It’s the fastest-growing program,”
Mulvaney said during one television interview about the budget.
"It grew tremendously under President Obama. It’s a very
wasteful program, and we want to try and fix that.” Hence the
Trump budget plan forecasts cutting spending by tightening
program eligibility rules.
SPENDING LEVELS OFF
SSDI spending did grow in recent decades, but that was due
to changes in the nation’s demography and workforce. Aging baby
boomers reached ages when disability is most likely, and more
women entered the workforce, making them eligible for disability
payments where needed. Another factor: the increase in Social
Security’s retirement age, to 66 from 65, has kept more workers
on disability who would have otherwise transitioned to
retirement benefits at 65.
More recently, growth has leveled off - 9.455 million people
received disability benefits in April this year, down by 121,000
compared with the previous April. The benefit is very modest,
averaging just $1,032 per month.
Media reports on SSDI often try to make the case that fraud
and abuse of the program are rampant, but the case is mostly
anecdotal. Typically these stories focus on the South or
Appalachia - parts of the country where SSDI beneficiaries are
found in disproportionate numbers due to lower levels of
education and income, and where access to healthcare is more
"There hasn’t been any evidence to show that people who
could be working are getting on benefits,” said Lisa Ekman,
director of government affairs at the National Organization of
Social Security Claimants' Representatives, a specialized bar
association for attorneys and advocates who represent SSDI
claimants. “The standards haven’t changed, and they are very
Indeed, only one in three SSDI applications are approved
upon initial application and less than 40 percent are granted
after all levels of appeal are exhausted, she notes.
If anything in SSDI needs reform, it is the horrendously
clogged pipeline of cases on appeal awaiting adjudication. Wait
times are at a historic high - an average of 616 days to get a
But budgeting for a big cut in SSDI spending by tightening
work requirements is no more than wishful thinking. The only way
to really save money in the program is by shrinking the benefits
of vulnerable people or by reducing benefit levels that already
are very modest.
But trying to cut the “SS” from SSDI is not going to cut it.
(Editing by Matthew Lewis)