By Jeffrey Freedman
Politicians running for office in November who champion the ailing Social Security Disability program will have the key to older voters’ hearts. Repairing SSD will be a battle, but it’s a battle worth fighting. Opponents of the program claim it is rife with fraud and waste. Their plan – to cut benefits and tighten the qualification process – would severely impact the barely subsistence income of 9 million disabled American workers.
Obtaining benefits is already long and arduous, with only four out of 10 applicants succeeding. The Urban Institute reports that, on average, benefits replace only half the income beneficiaries earned while employed. Thirty-one percent of recipients ages 31 to 40 live below the federal poverty line, and recipients ages 60 to 64 are 1.6 times more likely to live in poverty than their working peers.
True, the number of beneficiaries is increasing, but this is a function of demographics, not fraud. An aging population and increases in the eligibility age for retirement are at the core of the issue.
Disability rates double from ages 40 to 50, and again from ages 50 to 60. SSD recipients move to Social Security retirement benefits when they reach full retirement age, currently 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954, increasing to 67 for those born after 1960.
The result: SSD beneficiaries move to Social Security at an older age. In 2011, 400,000 people ages 65 to 66 who should have moved to Social Security continued to receive SSD.
If nothing changes, the SSD Trust Fund could run out of money by 2016. But there are solutions. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a member of the Finance Committee, proposes removing the cap on payroll taxes so everyone pays a fair share. He also wants to increase benefits. A poll by the National Academy of Social Insurance says the majority of Americans support these measures.
Another fix is to reallocate funds from Social Security to SSD, which has been done at least six times in the past. Stephen Goss, the Social Security Administration’s chief actuary, says a shift of one-tenth of 1 percent of payroll taxes would equalize the long-range outlook of the two funds.
Candidates looking to gain the votes of older Americans should promote options for stabilizing SSD. American workers pay into this program with the promise if they become disabled and can no longer work, it will keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables. Let’s keep that promise.
Jeffrey Freedman serves on the New York State Bar Association Disabilities Committee, is former chairman of the Erie County Bar Association Disability Committee and is a sustaining member of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives.