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Does Congress have the heart to avert disability crisis?

The least-known Social Security program will run out of funds in three years, possibly affecting 11 million Americans. Washington should stop wringing its hands.

April 02, 2013|Michael Hiltzik
  • Social Security Disability Insurance beneficiaries are unfairly portrayed as slackers gaming the system like the Coen brothers' Jeff Lebowski, whiling away his life at the bowling alley.
Social Security Disability Insurance beneficiaries are unfairly portrayed… (Merrick Morton / Grammercy…)

Bonnie Lee worked for 12 years as a health technician for Kaiser Permanente in Southern California, started her own Web services company, and raised two kids as a single mother in Ontario.

Then Bonnie, 51, moved back East to rural Pennsylvania and took up work as a visiting nurse — until her leg shattered from an otherwise undiagnosed case of osteoporosis. Now she can't stand, drive or even sit up for long periods of time, much less lift a patient. In 2003, after a long wait during which she drained her IRA, life insurance and 401(k), she qualified for disability payments under Social Security.

"I've never been on the dole, never took welfare or food stamps," Bonnie, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, told me this week. "I always made sure my kids had what they needed." Today, the $1,200 disability check she gets every month keeps her alive.

Her story is important because the program that keeps her fed and sheltered, Social Security disability, has a bull's-eye on its back — and not for the first time.

Quiz: Test your healthcare knowledge

Disability insurance, or DI, is the least-known and least-understood program within Social Security. It's also the worst-funded and facing an immediate crisis. You may have seen the forecast that Social Security's trust fund will be exhausted in the 2030s, at which point benefits would have to be cut or taxes raised. That's still a conjecture. But there's almost no doubt that the disability program's trust fund will run out in 2016, three years from now. At that point, absent congressional action, disability payments will have to be cut by about 20%.

"The insolvency of DI could not come at a worse time politically," says Kathy Ruffing, a budget expert at the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. This impending disaster could affect 8.8 million disabled Americans and their 2 million spouses and dependents. But a paralyzed Congress seems disinclined to even debate the necessary near-term fixes, which could include reallocating more of the Social Security payroll tax to the disability fund or raising the tax to shore up the program. Instead, Washington wrings its hands over the supposedly explosive growth of the program from 3 million beneficiaries in 1980. Expect to hear more about how disability is supposedly "out of control."

Perhaps because it covers a relatively small number of Social Security recipients, the disability program has always been a prime victim of mythmakers. Its beneficiaries are portrayed as slackers gaming the system like the Coen brothers' Jeff Lebowski, whiling away his life at the bowling alley and snarfing down White Russians. Last month the NPR program "This American Life" described the program as "a deal 14 million Americans have chosen for themselves," as though the typical recipient has chosen to suffer the debilitating medical conditions or mental syndromes that reduce him or her to subsistence on an average monthly check of $1,130.

The NPR report suggested that the caseloads of Social Security disability and its means-tested cousin, Supplemental Security Income, have "skyrocketed" because they've evolved into "hidden" substitutes for traditional welfare programs. In fact, as the social policy expert Harold Pollack has pointed out, the percentage of low-income children on SSI — they're its main beneficiaries — has remained fairly stable since the 1996 welfare reform. What's skyrocketed is the number of children in poverty in the United States — and the failure of all government relief programs to serve them adequately.

NPR was merely the latest in a long line of news sources to get disability wrong. Last year, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof claimed that rural families were pulling their children out of school so their illiteracy would keep them qualified for disability. He didn't actually identify anyone doing this, and in any case illiteracy and poor educational attainment aren't considered disabling conditions in and of themselves. The year before that, the Boston Globe reported that parents were placing their kids on hyperactivity drugs so they'd qualify for disability; government investigators found the opposite — kids on those medications were "more likely to be denied" benefits. In the 1990s, the media frenzy was over parents supposedly "coaching" their children to act crazy, which added the term "crazy checks" to the political lexicon. Again, no substantiation.

These are all varieties of a fictional genre known as "the undeserving poor" that encompasses Ronald Reagan's folksy yarns about welfare queens living on six-figure welfare handouts. The goal is to rationalize cuts in benefits by portraying their beneficiaries as morally depraved.

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