- “Do you really think Social Security Disability Insurance is part of what people think of when they think of Social Security? I don’t think so.” – Mick Mulvaney, the Office of Management and Budget’s director, May 2017
- “Over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts. Join the club. Who doesn’t get a little anxious for work every day and their back hurts?” -Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky), January 2015
- “It’s hard to say what came first or caused the other, the population decline or increased (SSDI) usage. Or maybe economic stagnation caused both. Regardless, there seems to be at least at the county and regional level something like a disability tipping point.” -Sen. Tom Cotton, (R-AR), November 2015
These are the kinds of justifications made by politicians aiming to slash the SSDI program, painting it as a welfare program for people who are simply too lazy to work. Of course, as our SSDI lawyers in Massachusetts know well, this is a common misconception that ignores the reality of the situation. Specifically, it ignores the fact that a person has to have worked for least five of the last 10 years in order to be eligible for SSDI, and further that the average disability recipient has worked 22 years prior to getting benefits.
Of course, most people believe the program will never be necessary for them – until it is. There is a one-in-three chance someone starting out their career today will either die or qualify for SSDI (at least for a time) before reaching retirement age.
Although there is little debate about the fact that SSDI has increased since the 1980s (by nearly 6 million beneficiaries), we also must consider the fact that:
- The number of working people in the U.S. has increased;
- The age of the average American worker has increased (older workers are more susceptible to illness/ disability);
- More than 28 million women have joined the workplace have joined the workplace since the 1980s, making more women eligible for SSDI benefits;
- Social Security retirement age increased from 65 to 66, meaning workers in their mid-60s who might previously have simply gone on retirement are now staying longer on SSDI benefits (5 percent of SSDI beneficiaries in December 2016 (or 495,000 people) are between the ages of 65 and 66.
Many people have excoriated the “explosion” in musculoskeletal injury claims of SSDI recipients (See Rand Paul’s earlier remark). While our Boston SSDI attorneys know it’s true that reforms signed by Ronald Reagan in 1984 meant that a greater percentage of SSDI claims are for musculoskeletal disorders or mental illness, the truth of the matter is people with these conditions were already eligible for benefits prior to those changes AND they constitute 30 percent of claims at that time. Reagan’s bill simply clarified their eligibility. Given that our population is aging (the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2050, the 65-and-older cohort will reach 84 million, nearly double its 2012 estimate), it should come as no surprise that musculoskeletal injury claims are on the rise. Further, an uptick in mental illness claims reflects not an increase in abuses of this system by people who are simply “having a bad day,” but a broader understanding and reduced stigma surrounding mental illness and its realities.
When one actually spends time with SSDI claimants and recipients, as our dedicated SSDI lawyers in Boston have done, the extent of these skewed stereotypes becomes even more apparent.
VOX recently explored these stereotypes and highlighted several real-life claimant scenarios and how they came to be in their current situation.
One example was a a 43-year-old Tennessee man who worked as a 911 dispatcher for years before being elected to county commissioner. At the time, he suffered moderate arthritis and herniated discs. But then in 2013, he was diagnosed with renal failure, which is an extreme form of kidney disease. This set off a chain reaction of events that resulted in his and his family’s reliance on SSDI. He suffered a medical emergency that resulted in what his doctor later diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He campaigned, but narrowly lost his commissioner re-election. He returned to his dispatcher job, but struggled to cope mentally and physically. He had to give up his job. Today, he is unable to dress without help from his teen son. Both his teen son and daughter (who is in college) work. However, the family’s lifeline is the $1,900 they receive in SSDI.
Even though there are countless examples of individuals like this man – who worked for years and have unexpectedly suffered severe and debilitating illness and injury – political assaults on the program continue. It’s why the 2018 budge proposed by President Donald Trump contains $72.5 billion in cuts to SSDI and Supplemental Security Income (another program for individuals who are both poor and disabled). These are programs that Mulvaney has called “very wasteful,” adding they “grew tremendously under President Obama” (an assertion that is quickly de-bunked).
The descriptions of SSDI as a flood of federal money for laggard and shiftless people who can’t be bothered to “suck it up” and down a few Tylenol before work. The reality is the program is notoriously hard to access and it serves as an important piece of assistance that allows the country’s most despairing citizens to scrape by and not slip further into a destitute poverty.
Although Massachusetts is not located in the so-called “disability belt,” its residents are no less insulated from these risks. (Researchers at Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research concluded the single best variable for explaining any variations in SSDI applications among states is self-reported poor health.)
Unfortunately, there is no blood test one can take to determine whether a person truly has legitimate back pain or bipolar disorder, the way we can test for cancer or diabetes. This has resulted in persistent beliefs that the government acts as an enabler and that such assistance has grown out-of-control. However, there is no reputable source that has provided strong evidence that the growth of the program is the result of outright fraud. Every person who currently receives SSDI in Massachusetts and elsewhere is getting it because they have been diagnosed with – and typically have extensive medical records to support – illnesses that are serious and pervasive.
There are questions about whether the program could be more effective, and whether it doesn’t keep people dependent when they would otherwise be capable of working. We do know that not 100 percent of the rise in enrollment is attributable to changes in the demographics. However, as noted in a 2015 paper by economists with Harvard’s Kennedy School, there was a sudden drop and then a sudden rise in incidence rates thanks to policy changes in the 1980s. Since the 1990s, incidence rates rose steadily among men, while those for women have been gradually approaching those of men. We also, as mentioned earlier, have increased aging population and eligibility among women, which the Harvard researchers say account for two-thirds of the increase in SSDI benefits recipients.
If you or a loved one is seeking Social Security Disability Insurance in Boston, call for a free and confidential appointment at (617) 777-7777.
In defense of Social Security Disability Insurance, Feb. 6, 2018, By Dylan Matthews, Vox.com
More Blog Entries:
Boston SSI Appeals Involving Residual Functioning Capacity, Feb. 13, 2018, Boston SSDI Lawyer Blog