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McPhersonSentinel - McPherson, KS
  • The growing cost of the federal disability program

  • Those practiced in decrying the cost and social impact of traditional welfare programs have a new target, thanks to the sharp rise in people collecting Social Security Disability Insurance payments.
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  • Those practiced in decrying the cost and social impact of traditional welfare programs have a new target, thanks to the sharp rise in people collecting Social Security Disability Insurance payments.
    Fourteen million Americans now receive monthly SSDI checks. Along with the Medicare benefits those qualifying for SSDI receive, the program cost taxpayers more than $183 billion in 2010, far outstripping the tax revenues intended to pay for it.
    Before we can do anything about a program that appears to have grown beyond its original intent, it's important that we understand what's behind the increased costs.
    Much of the increase is demographic: An aging workforce means more older workers facing injuries and illnesses that make it difficult for them to hold down a job. SSDI doesn't require applicants have one of a list of specific conditions, just a disability that keeps them from working at a job for which they are otherwise qualified.
    Other causes are economic. Disability applications historically rise with the unemployment rate; jobs in general are more scarce, and those that can be done by someone partially disabled even more so. In a downturn like the present one, workers over age 50 have an especially tough time getting hired. Age discrimination, lack of skills with new technology, and the inability of homeowners to easily move to a location all feed long-term unemployment.
    A fair number of the long-term unemployed, especially in dying industries and hard-hit regions, go on disability as soon as their unemployment benefits run out. They then disappear from the employment statistics, are mostly ignored by job-training programs, and come to accept an "early retirement" on disability payments of about $13,000 a year.
    But there are two other factors in the rise of SSDI that don't fit into the "lazy worker" or "victim of capitalism" narratives favored by conventional partisans.
    One is the rise of what Chana Joffe-Walt, in an eye-opening report for NPR, calls the "disability-industrial complex."  Social Security administrators reject two-thirds of disability claims, and there were few appeals until recently, when attorneys started advertising for customers. Their offer: No charge to the applicant unless the appeal is successful, then the lawyer is awarded up to 25 percent of the retroactive benefits check awarded the applicant.
    The second factor is the welfare reform act of 1996, which provided incentives for states to shrink their welfare rolls. That can be done by finding work for those on welfare, or by easing those who qualify on to SSDI, a federal program that doesn't cost state budgets a dime.
    What can or should be done about this? You could argue that, given the lack of jobs, disability is a reasonable alternative  for aging workers with limited skills and genuine health problems. The unemployment rate among workers in their 20s is significantly higher than for those in their 40s and 50s, so it may be better economic policy to concentrate job-training programs on those at the beginning of their careers.
    Page 2 of 2 - With the Social Security Disability fund reserves now projected to run out on 2016, a new look at the program is urgent. Standards may need to be tightened, the appeals process reformed, and periodic reviews required for at least some recipients. Such reforms must be instituted not just with any eye toward saving federal outlays, but with the purpose of providing access for millions of Americans to the rewards of work.
    - MetroWest Daily News
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