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Economy trouble for SSDI: Applications rose almost in tandem with total unemployment from 2008 to 2009

A 21-per cent jump, from 2008 to 2009, in applications for Social Security Disability Insurance has spooked authorities and pundits around the country. The lede of a Sept. 14 piece in The Washington Post reads, "The number of former workers seeking Social Security disability benefits has spiked with the nation's economic problems, heightening concern that the jobless are expanding the program beyond its intended purpose of aiding the disabled."

Worried officials

The next day, this was posted at PoynterOnline: "In just one year, from 2008 to 2009, Social Security disability applications rose by 21 percent. That is a big problem. While only half of applicants get the benefits they seek, officials are worried that the growth threatens to sink the program. Disability claims are for people who have a 'substantial work history' and 'a medical issue that prevents them from holding a job for at least a year.' "

SSDI called 'hidden welfare'

However, a day before the WP story came out, Slate ran its own take on the SSDI program, a caustic account headlined thus: "America's Hidden Welfare Program: Social Security's disability insurance is expensive, destructive, and out of control." Describing SSDI recipients as those "millions of Americans without work [who] have quietly continued to cash a federal check every month . . . [and who] don't show up in the unemployment statistics—not even as 'discouraged' workers—and . . . [whose] benefits won't stop after 99 weeks," the Slate piece profiles the SSDI progam, beginning with recipients:
They are the recipients of Social Security's Disability Insurance, a somewhat obscure federal program that nonetheless eats up nearly $200 billion a year. SSDI began in 1956 and was intended to provide benefits for people between 50 and 64 who'd been in the workforce but had developed "any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or to be of long-continued and indefinite duration." At the end of the first year, there were 150,000 Americans receiving SSDI benefits. As Congress serially widened the eligibility criteria—by age, by type and duration of impairment—that number began to grow. Enrollment hit 1 million adults in 1966; by the end of 1977 it was 2.8 million; and today it's more than 8 million ex-workers, plus another million disabled adult offspring and disabled widows and widowers.

A very real fiscal crisis

The Slate piece also says, "With the annual commitments now at about $180 billion, SSDI represents, as the authors of a 2006 economics journal paper put it, a 'fiscal crisis.' " Now, that we can agree on--we've written about the mental balancing act required to ignore the politically motivated exaggerations about the threat of the collapsing Social Security general retirement fund while addressing the very real and pressing needs of the SSDI program. However, we couldn't disagree more with the Slate piece's next assertion: "Equally distressing, it also represents public policy run amok. Over the last few decades, a program that was designed to help a relatively small group of people who were fatally sick or permanently unable to work has evolved into a backdoor welfare program in which a huge number of people are paid not to get jobs." The WP article points out that "Though policymakers anticipated the program's rolls growing with the aging of the baby-boom population, they suspect the current surge has less to do with any worsening in the health of the workforce than with the poor health of the economy." The article also says SSA officials are confident in their procedures to ensure screening out unqualified applicants. Given recent concerns raised by a GAO report, we're not so sure. But it is fairly easy to understand why applications might spike during a financial crisis.

Marginal workers

"But, [SSA officials] acknowledge, when jobs are scarce, more workers who might otherwise struggle through with their ailments try to secure disability benefits," reports the WP. "In bad times, the disability rolls are swollen by 'a lot of older workers who are very much on the margins. Often, they are the first people laid off,' Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue said. 'They can't find any new work and they are desperate. So they have every incentive to try and get in the program.' " That hardly conjures images of the millions of freeloading scum implied by the Slate article. For one thing, as the writer concedes in this sentence, "Granted, no one gets rich off SSDI—the average monthly check is about $1,000," there's simply not enough at stake to tempt millions of otherwise able-bodied workers to risk getting busted for a federal crime. Second, it's not as though recipients are picking up free money--anyone who (finally) makes it through all the hurdles and hoops is getting a benefit already qualified for by having worked the necessary amount of quarters.

Finding experienced, trained attorneys

The Poynter post sums it up pretty well: "You might consider looking into the cumbersome process that Social Security disability claimants must go through. It is a system that is set up to weed out the non-worthy, but for those who really need the help, the process can be tough. In most communities you will find law firms that specialize in handling disability claims. No doubt, they would be able to guide you toward some of the more interesting cases near you."