[Dave McClure is an author, business consultant, telecommunications policy wonk, veteran of the Vietnam era and Cold War, a disabled American and a Conservative.]
In the contentious battle of words, culture and morality leading up to the recent elections, conservative pundits sought to make the case that America is becoming an “entitlement state” in which some half of the population would vote for government benefits rather than work.
The standard-bearer for this campaign was Fox News, whose personalities took delight in deriding the increase in the use of food stamps and Social Security Disability Insurance as emblematic of a republic that is going to hell in a hand basket. The rise in disability cases was especially, they opined, a sure sign that Americans who choose not to work were simply applying for and receiving Social Security Disability. They were, it was inferred, social security frauds.
At the end of 2011, there were 10.6 million Americans collecting Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), up from 7.2 million in 2002. The share of the U.S. population receiving SSDI benefits has risen rapidly over the past two decades, from 2.2 percent of adults age 25 to 64 in 1985 to 4.1 percent in 2005, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.
On September 13, Sen. Tom Coburn, MD (R-OK) released a report summarizing 300 SSDI cases, which found that more than a quarter of 300 randomly selected disability case files were awarded benefits without properly addressing insufficient, contradictory and incomplete evidence. So the numbers are rising, and there may be some evidence that not all of the cases may have been awarded benefits for the right reasons.
But as my boyhood hero Quick Draw McGraw used to say, “Ho-o-o-l-d on thar!” You can’t just look at the numbers and draw sweeping moral judgments about disability insurance, or you end up slandering our nation’s heroes and losing elections. After all, if the four million or more disabled Americans who lean toward fiscal conservatism had voted for Mitt Romney instead of being alienated, he would have been elected.
Let’s consider some of the other factors behind the doubling of disability cases since 1985:
- A substantive part of the increase are first responders involved in 9/11 and wounded warriors returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Military people who are disabled, in particular, have doubled in this war over previous wars. They present with more disabilities – an average of 11 different medical problems, as opposed to four with veterans of previous wars. Why? Well, frankly, medicine is better. We are keeping alive many wounded veterans and first responders who would have never survived their wounds in years past. Would we prefer that these heroes simply die and save us the expense? And we now understand the ravages of war better than we did in WWII or Vietnam, when veterans were simply thrown into society and ignored.
- Medicine is getting better. Even with our civilian counterparts, medicine is keeping more Americans alive longer. People who normally died of chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease are staying alive, but have no provision to support themselves outside of their contributions to Social Security and Medicare. Not only are healthy Americans living longer, but their disabled counterparts are staying alive for periods never envisioned two decades ago. Yet society still has little place for them in the job markets, in an era in which the healthy have difficulty finding jobs.
- Congress meddles in medical affairs. When first adopted in 1956, the disability program applied only to workers older than 50 who were terminally ill or unable to work for the rest of their lives. But in 1960 Congress removed the minimum age requirement, and in 1965, it allowed people to qualify if they suffered from any condition rendering them unable to “engage in substantial gainful activity” for a year or more, including mental and musculoskeletal ailments.
- Even Dr. Coburn did not point a finger at the disabled. Had the journalists covering this increase in disability payment bothered to do even a minimal amount of research – or read the full text of Sen. Tom Coburn’s report — they would have noted that the senator correctly placed the blame on Congress and on Administrative Law Judges who made bad rulings, not on the disable persons who applied for benefits. Like rape victims being blamed for causing their own assaults, journalists now blame the disabled for applying for benefits.
- There’s no differentiation between SSI and SSDI. SSI is a means-tested benefit open to almost anyone who is disabled for any reason but unable to support themselves, and is paid to roughly 7.7 million Americans. SSDI is a medical-based benefit among those whose disability is chronic or likely to end in death, and is paid to about 8.8 million. By lumping the two together, sloppy journalists can infer that the number is much greater, and that all disabled people are somehow not subject to rigorous medical reviews of their conditions. Not true.
After all, you can’t just “get on SSDI disability.” While the application is relatively easy to fill out, the documentation required to support your claim is staggering. Names of doctors and hospitals, medical records, and other evidence that is usually scrupulously checked. Applications are then chosen at random to undergo a “federal review” in an effort to monitor for fraud.
Then it can take 18 months or longer just to get a response, and the response is typically to be denied benefits. Meaning more months to re-apply and wait. Often, getting a fair hearing requires the disabled person to hire law firms to sue on their behalf. And then, once you are adjudged to be disabled…you wait more. For five more months. That little gem of a stipulation was enacted by Congress in 1956 as part of the original law, and means that before you see a nickel of federal funds, you will need to burn through your retirement, savings, credit cards, loans from family and friends and any other money you might have.
As for living the sweet life on government funds, the average benefit to a disabled person is $1,111 per month. That’s below the poverty line for an individual, and about half of the poverty threshold for a family of four. If you are able to do any work at all, you can earn up to $1,000 per month — but if you exceed that amount in any month, you can lose your disability benefits. Also, if you are on Medicaid, your premiums for parts A and B are taken out of the payment. Any other medical care you need, and your prescriptions, are paid by you.
In August of 1969, on my way back from Southeast Asia, I was in the International Airport in San Francisco. I witnessed Americans in uniform being spat upon and assaulted for the crime of serving their nation. We pretend today that we are healing those wounds, and that we now honor our veterans. But at the same time we label our wounded warriors and heroes of today as frauds for the crime of being disabled.
Thanks for your service, you disability frauds.
Hope you die before you cause us any more financial inconvenience by asking for your benefits.