Disability, USA? A Different Point of View About Social Security Disability Benefits

Today’s post comes from guest author Barbara Tilker, from Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano.

You may have seen a recent report on 60 Minutes regarding the Social Security Administration’s disability program.  If, after watching that report, you became concerned that either a) Social Security would soon run out of money, or b) Social Security was paying disability benefits to either outright frauds or those who just aren’t disabled, I wouldn’t blame you.  That’s not because those things are true, but because this “report” was extremely biased and inaccurate.  The truth is that Social Security is well-funded and will be able to pay benefits well into the future, if not indefinitely.

It’s true that applications for Social Security disability benefits increase when the unemployment rate goes up.  What’s not true, however, is that otherwise healthy people are drawing a disability check during bad economic times.  The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College recently published a report that concluded that applications for benefits did rise when the unemployment rate went up, but that most of these “extra” claims were denied.  Those who were approved tended to be older individuals working physically demanding jobs whose bodies were just worn out after years of hard labor.  

Applications for disability benefits have increased recently, and a large part of that increase can be attributed to the fact that Americans are simply getting older.  One of the consequences of getting older is that your body doesn’t work as well as it used to, and you become much more likely to get a chronic disease such as diabetes.  It’s no surprise that disability applications will increase as more and more Americans enter the most disability-prone category of their lives.

People might worry that this increase in applications means that Social Security will soon run out of money to pay benefits.  60 Minutes didn’t do anything to allay those fears, stating several times that the trust fund is going broke in the next few years.  The disability trust fund currently only receives a fraction of the amount collected in payroll taxes, with the vast majority going to the retirement trust fund.  There is a simple fix for this problem – the government can either give more of each dollar to the disability fund, or transfer some money from the retirement fund to the disability fund.  In fact, this has been done several times, but with the money going from the disability fund to the retirement fund.  Social Security is well-funded and in no danger of going broke – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

60 Minutes also made it appear that disability benefits are there for anyone who applies, with no need to present any medical documentation to back up their claims.  Those who have been through the process know that this is just false.  The standard of disability for Social Security’s program is extremely high.  Only those who are truly disabled – and who have the documentation to back it up – are awarded benefits. 

There are some people who try to game the system and get benefits that they are not eligible for.  Due to Social Security’s strict standards, most of these people are denied benefits in the first place.  For those that do resort to fraud, Social Security has an investigative unit dedicated to finding these individuals.  Once caught, they face stiff penalties, including restitution and jail time. 

Despite what 60 Minutes would have you believe, Social Security’s disability program is well-funded, and only pays benefits to those who can prove they deserve them.  Don’t be fooled by sensationalistic programs designed to mislead rather than inform.