Alas, poor SSDI, I knew it well


Beware of politicians praising Social Security Disability and promising to save it

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, after the death of Caesar, Marc Antony provides a eulogy, which he begins with the line, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Of course, Antony’s speech does exactly the opposite, outlining all the good Caesar has done for the Roman people, all the while reminding those people that Brutus killed him, by punctuating the eulogy with the line, “For Brutus is an honorable man.” By the end of the speech, the Roman people are completely enraged against Brutus, shouting “O traitors, villains!” and demanding their revenge.

This rhetorical trick seems to be the favorite manner in which to discuss questions of the sustainability of the Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) program. DIB has financial problems. The DIB Trust Fund could be exhausted by the end of this year. DIB benefits have been paid by a combination of revenue from the FICA tax, which covers about 80 percent of the payments and the remaining 20 percent from the DIB trust fund.

If Congress does nothing, DIB benefit payments would need to be cut by about 20 percent. Given the modest amount of most benefits checks, such a cut would be painful for many recipients of DIB, and would lead to serious hardship. Because many beneficiaries suffer from severe, disabling medical conditions, their ability to find work and make up for that lost income is unlikely.

At the end of last year, as part of the budget compromise, Congress passed a reallocation to temporarily prevent this 20 percent reduction of benefits from occurring. However, it has merely pushed the date back to 2022 that the crisis will reappear.

Do they come to bury it?

So it would seem a good thing that members of Congress were arguing that a genuine “fix” be made to the program, to ensure its survival and functionality. They write, “Reform is needed for the DIB application and adjudication process to ensure fair and more timely hearings.”

Yes, the backlog for hearings is a significant problem for applicants who appeal, with delays stretching a year or more. Of course, the solution to this is more administrative law judges, to enable more hearings and to prevent the backlog from reappearing. But Congress has cut the Social Security Administration’s budget for many of the years of the last decade.

The Congressmen note that overlap with other programs should be eliminated and “continued fraud and overpayments to individuals who are no longer disabled must be addressed.”

Fraud within the system has been measured at less than 1 percent of the cost of the program, and is such a small component of the potential shortfall, that to eliminate much of that fraud would probably require many times the resources that Congress appears to be willing to allocate to SSA.

Continuing Disability Reviews examine beneficiaries on a periodic basis, to determine if someone’s heath has improved to the point where they no longer need to remain on the program. However, Congress has been unwilling to provide SSA with the additional staff or funding, and CDRs, too, have a long backlog.

And they suggest that more should be done to intervene with applicants to help them re-enter the workforce. A noble goal, but one that would demand both more staff to administer this “intervention” and likely, the active participation of businesses to provide help in bringing some disabled back into the workforce.

Congress has shown utterly no interest in adequately providing the resources for any of these issues, and one reason the backlog has grown as it has is due to Congresses failure to pay for the staff necessary to complete the hearings.

The solution to the problem is within their hands

The bottom line is almost all of the failings of SSA are due to Congress and its refusal to increase the taxes necessary to pay for the program, which has been unchanged for almost three decades, last having been raised in 1990. Of the 30 percent of applicants who are successful, most are so sick that they would never be able to return to work, no matter the level of assistance.

Congress should fix DIB for this and the next generation. While their rhetoric sounds positive, the concern for all Americans is that they do not come to praise it, but instead to bury it.

Congress should look to another line from Caesar for guidance: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves,”