Disabled Americans: Pawns in a Larger Social Security Game?

Richard Eskow


Sen. Sherrod Brown discusses Social Security expansion with Richard (RJ) Eskow on The Zero Hour

William Galston writes in the Wall Street Journal about a Republican senator’s plans to force a confrontation on government disability benefits. Though Mr. Galston doesn’t seem to see it this way, it sounds as if Sen. Orrin Hatch plans to hold benefits for disabled Americans hostage in order to force Social Security cuts on everyone.

Sen. Hatch, like many other Republicans, is raising alarms about the decreasing size of Social Security’s disability trust fund. But, in a rare moment of candor, a “Senate staff member” indicated to Galston that “Sen. Hatch hopes to focus on the disability issue to catalyze a broader discussion.”

In other words, Hatch wants to prevent a temporary reallocation of funds from other programs – which Democratic and Republican Congresses alike have done in the past – in order to force a “broader discussion” of across-the-board cut in benefits for Social Security, and perhaps privatization as well.

Right-wing wars of disinformation and demonization can be a wonder to behold, but the attacks on disabled recipients of Social Security benefits have been especially mean-spirited. Claims of “fraud” in the disability program are, simply put, counterfactual. There are other claims, too – that there’s an epidemic in malingering that is exacerbated by overly generous benefits, that poor screening and lax rules allow able-bodied people to collect benefits, that there’s a widespread “double dipping” problem, and that loopholes allow people to collect benefits while working.

“60 Minutes,” which increasingly reflexively reflects the misguided and narrow worldview of the wealthy and powerful, even jumped in with an “exposé” that repeated and amplified many of these misconceptions. (For more on “60 Minutes” and its corporate worldview, see here and here.)

Shawn Fremstad and Rebecca Vallas of the Center for American Progress (CAP) co-authored an article entitled “The Facts on Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income for Workers with Disabilities” which clears up many of these misconceptions. Vallas also joined us on The Zero Hour to further debunk these and other falsehoods about the SSDI and SSI programs.


Rebecca Vallas of the Center for American Progress on The Zero Hour

“For the vast majority of Disability Insurance beneficiaries — about 71 percent — half or more of their income comes from Disability Insurance,” Fremstad and Vallas write. Conservatives claim that there has been an explosion in disability claims. But, as Fremstad and Vallas point out, “There has been little change over the past two decades in the share of nonelderly adults receiving Supplemental Security due to a disability.”

There has been some increase in disability as the average age of working adults increase – but, as we discussed with Vallas, it’s interesting to see conservatives complain about that (relatively minor) figure while simultaneously pushing to raise the retirement age even higher.

Far from being an easy program to game, Social Security disability coverage is, as Vallas says in our interview, “hard to get on and hard to live on.” The screening process is stringent, and applicants often must wait a year or more as the result of congressional budget cuts. As for benefits, Vallas and Fremstad cite Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that show that the United States has the least generous disability-benefit system of any developed nation except South Korea.

On “double dipping,” Paul Van de Water addressed an especially harsh Republican proposal that targets (the small number of) recipients who receive both unemployment and disability insurance.

As for the recipients who earn money at a job while still collecting benefits – there are limits to such benefits. Strikingly, the measures that made these work incentives possible passed Congress with strong bipartisan support. But why wouldn’t they? Providing incentives for disabled people to go back to work in a new field is a pretty conservative idea – one which happens to make sense. It’s good for the people involved, and saves money for the program when properly managed.

The disability trust fund is scheduled to run out of money in 2017 but, as Sen. Sherrod Brown explained in a speech at CAP, the situation is easily remedied with a temporary reallocation of funds. (Brown discusses Social Security with us in the video clip at the top of the page.) Congress has already done that 11 times, with broad bipartisan support.

This time it’s different. Why? Because the right is making it a partisan issue. They’re putting the brakes on reallocation, a practical solution that Galston also characterizes in partisan and pejorative terms. “Many Democrats want to put a patch on the problem,” he writes. Galston also seems to have overlooked the word “temporary” when he argues that this move would worsen the whole program’s long-term outlook.

There are other solutions, unmentioned by either Galston or (apparently) Hatch. The disability programs’ short-term funding problem could also be solved with a 0.2 percent increase in the payroll tax.

As for the overall Social Security program, lifting the payroll tax cap would go a long way toward stabilizing it for the foreseeable future (probably further than the 45 percent CBO figure Galston cites, although that’s an actuarial debate for another day). A financial transaction tax could conceivably fund the rest of the difference.

There’s another tool in the toolkit, too. Polling conducted by the National Academy for Social Insurance shows that a majority of Americans across political lines would be willing to pay more in payroll taxes in return for increasing benefits – rather than decreasing them. The majority of Americans who support Social Security expansion aren’t “demonizing the rich” or “looking for a free ride,” to use two dismissive phrases from the right. They’re willing to pay their own way.

Left unmentioned in the Galston piece, and too often in the broader debate, is the profound effect that growing wealth inequality has had on Social Security’s finances, both by placing a larger percentage of earnings above the payroll tax cap (which lifting the cap would remediate) and by suppressing middle-class wages.

Solving the latter problem would require a comprehensive national policy aimed at wealth inequality, but that’s a conversation we’ll need to have eventually anyway.

Brown – along with Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Tom Harkin, Bernie Sanders, Mark Begich, and others – has been in the forefront of calls for expanding, rather than cutting, Social Security. They’re winning the debate, and in so doing are shifting the political ground. We suspect that’s what really has the anti-Social Security crowd worried. The momentum’s turning against them. They need a new way to go on the offensive.

Still, why target the disabled? Perhaps because, as that Senate staffer told Galston, that’s one way to “catalyze a broader discussion” – especially when the discussion isn’t going your way.

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