Fifth Hearing on Securing the Future of SSDI

The House Committee on Ways and Means held its fifth and last hearing on Securing the Future of the Social Security Disability Insurance Program. These hearings explored options for meeting the challenges that the Social Security Disability Insurance program (SSDI) faces today. The final hearing focused on the options available to meet fiscal as well as structural issues, with a strong focus on how to increase employment among disabled individuals.

Among those that testified were some who believed the program should be changed dramatically, some who cautioned not to change too much without studying the impacts, and others who offered suggestions for increasing employment for people with disabilities.

This article will summarize the testimony from the fifth hearing on Securing the Future of the Social Security Disability Insurance Program and explain why we believe the SSA should continue to provide adequate financial support for individuals with disabilities.

SSDI: The Numbers

First, the speakers presented the statistics: The number of SSDI recipients has increased six-fold in the last 40 years, increasing expenditures from 18 billion to 128 billion. This increase was caused by a number of factors, from the changing definition of "disability" (to include a combination of impairments as well as mental illnesses) to the aging workforce and the significant increase in female workers. For example, on this last point, the addition of women to the workforce increased the number of SSDI cases by 1/6th.

Meanwhile, while the number of SSDI applicants has increased, the economic status of people with disabilities has decreased to the point that more than 30 percent of SSDI recipients live in poverty today.

Should the Definition of Disability Change?

Some of the speakers went on to argue that the SSA's definition of disability is a principal cause of the rise in the number of SSDI recipients. They claim the definition is inaccurate for today's workforce.

Richard Burhauser, Professor at Cornell University, argued that the criteria for SSDI eligibility is looser than ever before because it now includes multiple disabilities and mental illnesses. "Increasingly," he said, "applicants admitted to the SSDI rolls on these lax criteria have greater work capacity than assumed for those receiving SSDI benefits."

Yet, as other speakers pointed out (both in this hearing and in each prior hearing), the criteria for SSDI eligibility are tougher than they have ever been. Getting approval for a legitimate medical condition can take many months, even years. Furthermore, the change in definition was necessary to look at a person's entire disability and how it prevents him or her from working.

Suggestions for SSDI's Future

Aside from recommendations to change the definition of disability, presenters offered a wide range of suggestions to help keep SSDI viable in the future. The recommendations included:

  • Creating a larger market for private disability insurance
  • Raising the SSDI payroll taxes of firms whose employees enroll in SSDI at above-average rates
  • Structurally reforming the way that state and federal programs handle SSDI
  • Testing out policies through pilot programs before making an expansive decision
  • Allowing individuals to stay on SSDI when they start to work, getting benefits when their earnings are below a certain threshold and losing those benefits when their earnings are above that threshold
  • Reallocating funds between the DI and OASI trust funds
  • Considering assistive devices and workplace accommodations when determining a claimant's functional capacity
  • Working to change the national view of people with disabilities from a deficit/medical model to a talent/social model
  • Increasing employer incentive to hire people with disabilities
  • Increasing the use of work programs, such as telecommuting, that provide disabled workers with options
  • Helping employers comply with federal and state disability laws

As you can see, there are many ideas on the table. As the director for public policy at The Arc of the United States, Marty Ford, puts it, though, Congress must be careful not to move in the wrong direction. SSDI benefits are not large — they average only $1,060 per month — but they are vital to people who need them.

Increasing Work Opportunities for SSDI Applicants

People with disabilities serious enough to meet the SSA's definition of disability are rarely on disability simply because they do not want to work. Nadine Vogel, Founder and President of Springboard Consulting, testified that "almost all employees who suffer an accident or develop a disability want to remain at work or get back as quickly as possible, even if not in the same capacity as before the onset of the impairment." Applying for SSDI is often a last resort. In fact, one in five men and one in seven women who obtain SSDI benefits die within five years of receiving their first benefit check.

Thus, Marty Ford cautions that any adjustment to SSDI must be carefully evaluated and should preserve the basic structure of SSDI. It is important to increase employment opportunities, but that does not mean the SSA should tighten eligibility criteria. The SSA should not require people who meet the definition of disability to return to work — it should be voluntary.

In the current environment, businesses who wish to be equal opportunity employers meet challenges many are unwilling to overcome. Jill Houghton, Executive Director of the U.S. Business Leadership Network explained, "In this economy, the last thing managers want is anything that complicates their lives, and they assume they don't have the time and resources to handle any 'complications' of hiring and retaining employees with disabilities that may arise."

Yet, that is the very thought process that requires some people to go on disability in the first place. The number of SSDI applicants has risen during the Great Recession, which is in large part due to the fact that people with real disabilities have lost their jobs and have been unable to find new jobs.

Moving Forward Without Jeopardizing People With Disabilities

At the beginning of the hearing, Social Security Subcommittee Chairman, Sam Johnson, said: "We must and we will secure the future of this essential program for the millions of Americans who count on benefits. As we look at options to keep that promise, we must balance the needs of those with disabilities with the needs of workers who support the program." But we must not take away the benefits that people need to survive. They are facing enough already — let us make sure that they have opportunities without sending them into poverty.

If you have a disability that prevents you from working, you may be eligible for SSDI. The system is solvent. Workers continue to pay into SSDI, and they will continue to do so even when the trust fund has been exhausted. If your disability falls into the SSA's definition of disability, you have spent enough time working jobs that pay into Social Security, you cannot work because of your disability, and your disability is expected to last at least a year or be terminal, you are entitled to these benefits. Speak with an experienced SSDI lawyer to learn more.