Disability’s Boom Creates a Quiet Crisis

Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee, led by Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, have released some disturbing statistics on the number of people who collect Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, benefits.

That number has been growing so fast that it threatens to bankrupt the SSDI fund in the next five years.

“Since the recession ended in June 2009, the number of new enrollees to Social Security’s disability insurance program is twice the job growth figure,” Investors Business Daily reported.

From June 2009 through April 2012, 4.7 million new people enrolled in disability while nonfarm payrolls increased by  2.3 million.

That boosted the number of people on disability to 10.8 million, 53% more than ten years ago.

Sen. Jeff Sessions. Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore.

Enrollment in SSDI has been increasing for decades. Traditionally the place where unemployable people with debilitating medical conditions got some help when they could no longer work, the program has morphed into a catch-all safety net for people who can’t find jobs and have all kinds of problems.

In 1984 Congress expanded eligibility for SSDI to people who had mental illnesses and pain conditions. That, by the way, was during the Reagan, not Obama administration.

That has contributed to the steady growth in the program, which may comprise 7% of the nonelderly population by 2018, by some estimates. That, incidentally, is just about when the Disability Insurance Trust Fund is expected to run out of money.

SSDI benefits are paid out of a 1.8% payroll tax, one of the payroll taxes that also finance Social Security and Medicare. But disability insurance’s problems are affecting those two mammoth programs as well: It accounts for more than 15% of both Social Security and Medicare’s budgets.

And, surprise, surprise, applications for disability insurance jumped sharply after many people lost extended unemployment benefits in 2010. SSDI monthly payments average about $1,000.

This is  becoming a program for aging baby boomers who are being pushed out of the workforce and aren’t ready to retire yet. That, needless to say, wasn’t its purpose when it started in the 1950s.

Getting SSDI isn’t easy; only about a third of the applicants are approved. But the states that actually run the plan for the federal government have little incentive to get tough on eligibility, and sometimes early rejections are overturned by judges anyway.

It is, in short, a big mess, and a costly one. As Sen. Sessions said:

Today only 1 percent of Social Security disability recipients ever return to work. The administration of this program must be improved to avoid sinking our country deeper into debt, to ensure the program remains viable for those with disabilities, and to protect Social Security itself.

I support the original goal of the disability program, but it moved way beyond that long ago. We simply can’t afford to help everyone who says they need it, so I endorse efforts by Republicans to rein in costs and restrict eligibility to those who truly qualify.

Maybe we ought to tighten the definition of “disability”: It’s certainly not a synonym for “long-term unemployed. ”



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