Real Deal on SS Disability Claims

On June 25, an AP story appeared in The Times-Tribune warning that the Social Security Administration is “approving disability benefits at strikingly high rates” and that “claims for benefits have increased by 25 percent since 2007.”

The article went on to forecast that these measures are leaving the Social Security Trust Fund on the “brink of insolvency” particularly because poor management has led to people receiving benefits they don’t rightly deserve.

The article also seems to imply that all members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee believe this to be true. As the ranking member of the Economic Growth, Job Creation and Regulatory Affairs Subcommittee of this very committee, I beg to differ.

Let’s look at the facts.

The increase in approved disability claims is due to a significant rise in claims – up 25 percent since 2007. With baby boomers moving into the age category where disabling injuries are more common and more of them being rendered unable to work yet still too young to retire, a full 70 percent of disability claimants are 50 years or older.  This demographic destiny mixed with (unwise in my view) congressionally mandated budget cuts means that the Social Security backlog will, unfortunately, grow.

While President Obama has made a significant effort to reduce the backlog by hiring 550 support staff and 35 more administrative law judges in an attempt to increase processing capacity by 36 percent, it is up to Congress to fully fund these programs. While I recognize that we need to address the country’s budget deficit, we cannot fix our fiscal problems on the backs of disabled citizens or seniors. We must remember that our budget is about more than just dollars and cents. How we spend our dollars and cents is a statement of our values and priorities.

Let’s look at the claimants, too. Are the majority of individuals approved just fraudulently cashing checks made of others’ hard-earned tax dollars, as this article seems to imply? That seems unlikely.  The eligibility standards actually are very strict – a person must be expected to be disabled for more than a year or to die from their injury in order to be eligible for benefits.

Only about four in 10 applicants are approved, even after some going through numerous appeals. The average monthly benefit, as the article correctly points out, is $1,130. With the federally recognized poverty level in Scranton at $22,050 for a family of four, who can even live and support a family on $13,560 a year?

The Oversight and Government Reform Committee should be spending its time focusing on how our Social Security system can better serve seniors and workers who have become disabled, rather than putting out invalid, politically driven criticisms of a government program that is essential to many Americans. I intend to use my seat and vote on the committee to support that more useful purpose.