When economic times are tough and the daily headlines remind us of our nation's deficit challenge, it's easy to use misinformation and anecdotes of abuse to demonize certain entitlement programs. Unfortunately, this has the unintended effect of stereotyping whole groups of people as lazy, unmotivated or, worse yet, committing intentional fraud.
First, it was those living on the edge of poverty and relying on Medicaid for health care and other critical support services who took the hit. Now it's the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program that's under the microscope, and current proposals to adjust the cost-of-living mechanics are another stab at eroding the program.
Critics cite the growth in SSDI (more on that later) and conclude that it's largely driven by scofflaws who have decided they've had enough of the work world and choose to go on the public dole. However, given that only about 40 percent of those who apply for SSDI are able to meet the program's rigorous medical requirements, this conclusion is baseless.
It's easy to forget that SSDI, like SSA retirement benefits, is paid for from the Social Security Trust Fund and, therefore, does not affect the nation's deficit. Of the 6.2 percent of earnings that workers have deducted from their pay (with a corresponding employer match) 0.9 percent is the premium for disability insurance.
Similarly, it is easy to forget that SSDI reaches children and adults with developmental disabilities and provides absolutely vital aid. The Arc Baltimore and dozens of other community-based agencies, for example, support thousands of Marylanders disabled since birth or childhood who are able to qualify for SSDI benefits because of the earnings history of their parents, one or both of whom are also disabled, retired or deceased.
Anyone who has ever worked with or otherwise knows individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities will attest to their desire to work. They will tell you that earning a paycheck is far more rewarding than being completely dependent on a government check.
Numbers can purport to tell the story, but sometimes it depends on what story one wants to tell. By one count, there's been more than a 20 percent increase in SSDI recipients in the last five years. That is based, however, on the least conventional measure of growth.
The commonly accepted standard for measuring growth is a little complicated and doesn't lend itself to a sound bite. A more accurate measure of the utilization of SSDI benefits requires an age and gender adjustment. The age adjustment recognizes that baby boomers are reaching the age where they are more prone to disabilities. The risk of work disabilities nearly doubles between ages 40 and 50, then doubles again between 50 and 60.
Another age factor is the change in full retirement age from 65 to 66. Since SSDI beneficiaries switch to regular retirement benefits when they reach retirement age, the SSDI rolls at the end of 2010 included more than 300,000 people who would have left the rolls if the retirement age had not increased. This created the appearance of a spike unrelated to any actual growth in the number of recipients.
The gender adjustment takes into account the huge rise in the number of women who now have earnings histories sufficient to qualify them for benefits and, when disabled, receive them. So with age and gender adjustments taken into account, the rate of those using SSDI benefits increased only from 3.5 percent to 4.4 percent between 1995 and 2011 — an increase for sure, but not catastrophic — and on a fairly smooth trajectory.
There are two issues on which critics and advocates can agree. The claims review and appeals processes need more and better resources for two reasons: to get the aid needed to those who qualify quickly; and to make certain that aid is getting to those most in need. Inadequately adjudicated claims that are overturned on appeal not only delay needed help but also waste scarce resources processing appeals that could have been avoided with more robust claim processing.
The other point of agreement is the impact of the economic slowdown. Plagued by unemployment rates nearly double that of the rest of the population, people with disabilities are inordinately impacted by the anemic economy. The surest way off the disability rolls is a job.
So rather than criticize, let's join forces to fortify SSDI and give it the tools it needs to preserve an important safety net for current and future generations.
Stephen H. Morgan is executive director of The Arc Baltimore. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.