In the late 1990s, as he approached 50, my dad started to have a series of small strokes. Many of them went undiagnosed, until the summer of 2000, when he finally went to the hospital. He slowly stopped working after that until, finally, in the fall of 2004, he decided to apply for disability, which he collected until he died in November 2006.
If you hadn’t known my dad very well, you would have thought he was totally okay after his strokes. He didn’t seem “disabled” in the outdated, non-politically correct way we think of the term. But I, and my family, could tell in his shuffling gate, and the hesitating way he talked, that he wasn’t his old self. More important: He had spent the previous 20 years earning his living through manual labor, as a plumber, lifting heavy marble bathtubs and slithering through the short crawlspaces beneath houses. That was a job he couldn’t continue to do, and there weren’t any other jobs he could easily transition to. By the time he received his first disability check, he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer, anyway.
One of the first things this new Congress did when it opened for business last month was to attack Social Security Disability. I’m going to talk about why, and about why the program is stressed, further down. For now, it’s really important to keep one fact in mind: The vast majority of people who receive disability payments are people like my dad.
The problem with Social Security Disability begins with this: The program’s actuaries say it will run out of money next year, and that current recipients will receive about 20 percent less than they do now unless something is done.
Republicans are saying that the disability program is running out of money because it’s being abused, and they’re saying that using funds from the bigger Social Security retirement program to plug the hole is robbing Peter to pay Paul. “[M]y measure creates a point-of-order to prohibit any diversion of funds from the retirement program to the disability program,” Sam Johnson, the Texas Republican who sponsored a House rule to prevent the money shift, said. “But more than that, the rule seeks to encourage much-needed reform.”
People are awarded disability payments if they’re severely impaired or unable to perform their past work or any other type of substantial work. In that assessment, age, education, and work experience are taken into account. That’s where claims of fraud arise, because some of the decisions are judgment calls made by doctors and government officials. The disability program encompasses people with a vast range of experiences, from people who have problems that have always kept them from hanging onto a steady job to people who suffer from squishy-sounding things like chronic back pain. And sometimes, whether they are disabled depends on who is deciding.
Let’s be clear, the Social Security Disability program has increased a lot: It’s roughly doubled in the past 20 years. The total costs are about $260 billion a year, more than three times the cost of food stamps. But it’s still only about 8.9 million people, and payments were about 4 percent of the federal budget in 2013.
In a controversial article two years ago, NPR’s Chana Joffe-Walt highlighted the growth trend, and pinned it to several long-term changes in American society. To begin with, we have expanded our definition of “disability.” Second, the economy has changed in fundamental ways, so people without a ton of education who once earned their living through manual labor are having a tough time finding steady employment. Lastly, the passage of welfare reform in 1996 changed the way that welfare was funded, so states have a financial incentive to encourage all the people who apply for welfare but might qualify for disability to apply for the disability program, which is federally funded, instead.
I thought Joffe-Walt’s piece was fair, but, many of the responses to her article clarified the problem further. Even though the program has grown, the majority of applications are denied. Some of the increases in the number of children enrolled are caused by the rise in child poverty over the same period, which means more families qualify for help for their children. Demographic changes—aging baby boomers like my dad—also account for some of the rise. Also, the people Joffe-Walt profiled who were part of the industrial economy also worked jobs that have higher disability rates in general because the work is labor intensive.
Regardless, it’s wrong to think that the program has grown simply because controls have somehow become lax, and lazy people are scrambling for disability payments that keep them below the poverty line. One of the ideas explored in Joffe-Walt’s piece, that people with physical pain are unable to find sit-down jobs that would allow them to work without hurting their bodies, has transformed in the popular imagination to the idea that people are malingering, that they could find some kind of job but simply don’t want to, or that they’re enrolling in disability only because of the bad job market. But it’s more complicated than that, and unemployment rates are less important than other factors.
This idea that a program must be growing because fraud has increased is a common one—Republicans think the same thing about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the program once known as food stamps. Yet, it’s also true that need has grown. Americans are poorer. Americans are older. Americans who performed physical labor have broken their bodies working and are unable to find jobs they can do now, as was the case with my dad.
Looked at one way, my dad basically retired at a young age, in physical pain and near his death, using funds from the disability program instead of the retirement program, which he never would have been able to access because he died too young. So, concerns over where the money is coming from exactly are a bit beside the point.
I suppose, technically, my dad might have been able to find a job as a greeter at a Wal-Mart, or something else with low physical demands and that did not require a lot of skills. But those jobs weren’t open. Also, I think there’s a more philosophical question we should ask: why would we want to push aging people, in many cases, at the end of their lives, into new jobs that require new skills and probably pay poorly in the name of saving a few federal dollars? That’s a question for Republicans, because that will be the end result of their actions, if they get their way.
Monica Potts is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and a New America fellow.