Social Security Disability Income Under Fire From Budget Cutters

Although some people are convinced that federal Supplemental Security Disability Income (SSDI) program for severely disabled children is a boondoggle, a four-year-old boy diagnosed with severe ADHD is an excellent example of how the program works.  The boy’s case workers said there wasn’t much they could do for him.  “We were at a standstill,” said the boy’s mother, who was barely scraping by as a single parent of two.  When doctors recommended she enroll her son in the SSDI program, her situation quickly improved.   A $674 monthly payment helps pay for her son’s day care, a private tutor and medications.  Most importantly, SSDI made the boy eligible for Medicaid, which provided access to the doctors he needed. 

“I can see a light in his eyes again,” according to the mother.  “He just looks so much happier.”  The SSDI program for children is expanding rapidly, with the largest increase among kids with mental, behavioral and learning disorders, including ADHD, speech delays, autism, and bipolar disorder.  

Even though the program benefits children in need, it is generating Congressional criticism.  The Boston Globe created a backlash that called the children’s SSDI program “The Other Welfare” and followed several families whose children’s eligibility for the program was open to discussion.  Several of the families believed that they had to medicate their children with psychotropic drugs in order to qualify for the benefit.  The series spurred Representative Geoff Davis, (R-KY), Representative Richard E. Neal, (D-MA), and Senator Scott Brown, (R-MA), to ask for an investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which is expected to be released by the end of the year.  In a letter to the GAO, the three lawmakers expressed concern about “recent reports in the media and elsewhere” that “have identified potentially alarming practices…(that raise) numerous concerns, including the potential for fraud and abuse in the program.”  Some Congressmen are not waiting for the GAO study results and have twice proposed limiting SSDI benefits.  The House budget resolution proposed that the government could save $1.4 billion over 10 years by reducing incentives in the SSDI program “for parents to place their children on medication solely to receive SSI benefits.”  

Advocates for children have rallied against the potential cuts.  The largest advocacy groups, including the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, have formed a coalition to protect the SSDI program for kids and are lobbying Congress.

 At present, SSDI provides cash assistance and Medicaid to the families of 1.2 million low-income kids who have severe disabilities, at a cost of $10 billion a year.  The program has grown by nearly 40 percent over the last nine years.  “Cutting the SSI program could have disastrous consequences for families, many of which already are struggling well below the poverty line,” according to Rebecca Vallas, a lawyer with Community Legal Services, a non-profit that is part of the coalition.  Vallas says the increase in the SSDI program is due to a national increase in child poverty and improved access to healthcare for kids, who get diagnosed earlier and more frequently with disabilities that might otherwise be ignored.

It’s not only kids who benefit from SSDI.   Recently, the Social Security Administration added 12 new conditions to its “compassionate allowances list,” including several heart ailments.  Applicants who have any of the 100 conditions  on the list are fast-tracked and can have a decision as quickly as two weeks.  For other people, the length of the disability process can be measured in months — or even years.  “When you have a catastrophic experience and you lose 50 percent of your income, it can mean that you’re selling your house, that you may not be able to support yourself. That’s so depressing for the patient,” said Karla Robeson.  Social Security is in the process of determining new conditions to add to the compassionate allowances list, though they’re getting more difficult to pinpoint, said Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue.

Not everyone is supportive of the SSDI program.  Writing on Slate, James Ledbetter, a widely respected financial journalist, says that “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 one million adults in 1966; by the end of 1977 it was 2.8 million; and today it’s more than eight million ex-workers, plus another million disabled adult offspring and disabled widows and widowers.  SSDI represents, as the authors of a 2006 economics journal paper put it, a ‘fiscal crisis.’  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.  How huge?  Nationwide, we’re talking about well over four percent of the adult population.  In some states — Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, and West Virginia — the rate exceeds six percent.  These millions of workers extricated from payrolls represent untold billions in tax lost revenues and all manner of desperately needed economic activity (consumption, home purchases, etc.).”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply