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Article on SSD Calls Disability Benefits a Bedrock For the Disabled, Part 2

In a previous blog post, this blog summarized an important article on Social Security Disability (SSD) published by the Center for American Progress. Covered in that summary were eligibility requirements and the amount of benefits paid. This post continues the summary, focusing on beneficiaries and the impairments that necessitate applying for SSD benefits.

Most Common Disabilities

The Social Security Administration (SSA) characterizes beneficiaries by the health conditions for which they receive benefits. The five most common impairments are:

  • Mental illness
  • Musculo-skeletal impairments
  • Cardiovascular conditions
  • Nervous system disorders
  • Cancers, infectious diseases, injuries and diseases of various bodily systems such as the respiratory system and the endocrine system

Many recipients of SSD benefits have more than one impairment. For example, people with mental illness often have poor physical health as well.

These are just the most common impairments for which workers receive SSD benefits. There are 14 body systems in the SSD's listing of impairments. Moreover, many beneficiaries have multiple serious health conditions. For example, more than half of those who receive benefits for mental disorders have been diagnosed with more than one. Additionally, people with mental illness often have poor physical health, adding to the number of impairments that make them eligible for SSD benefits.

People receiving disability benefits in the United States have the same impairments as people receiving similar benefits in other parts of the world. For example, the most common causes of disability worldwide are mental disorders and musculoskeletal disorders, according to the World Health Organization.

There are sound demographic reasons for this common thread in disability benefits around the world. First, the population is aging almost everywhere, and musculoskeletal disorders are more common among older workers, who are living longer with their conditions because of improvements in health care. Second, there is more awareness and less stigma about mental illness today than in previous generations, making people more willing to seek benefits when they suffer from illnesses such as severe anxiety, depression or schizophrenia.

Patterns Among SSD Benefit Recipients

In addition to documenting the conditions for which workers receive SSD benefits, the Social Security Administration provides occupational and age data. For example, most SSD beneficiaries are older and had worked at physically demanding jobs prior to becoming disabled. The average age of an SSD beneficiary is 53, which means that the average beneficiary paid into the system for at least 30 years. Most worked in unskilled or semiskilled jobs. Around half ofSSD recipients have a high school diploma or less, while another third have some college education.

Disability Benefits Systems Compared

The article provides comparative information about disability benefits:

  • The U.S. disability system is among the strictest in the world.
  • Disability benefits in the United States are less generous than those in most other countries. The U.S. ranks 30thamong 34 countries in terms of the percentage of a worker's income replaced by disability payments, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED). Some countries replace as much as 80 percent of a worker's wages.
  • The U.S. spends relatively little on disability benefits compared with other countries with similar programs. The U.S. spends around 0.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on disability while Great Britain spends 2.4 percent. The U.S. is close to the bottom of the OCED list of countries with similar programs in terms of the percentage of GDP spent on disability benefits.

Reasons for Increase in Number of Applications and Benefits

Congressional critics of the SSD system use the gradual increase in the number of people receiving benefits to suggest that this growth reflects an increase in the number of people wrongly receiving benefits through some type of fraud. The reality is more straightforward and less sinister: The increase in the number of workers receiving benefits is almost all due to the aging of the U.S. population; older people are more likely to become disabled. In addition, the growth in the number of beneficiaries has begun to slow down as baby boomers start retiring.

Other reasons for the increase in SSD recipients include:

  • Growth in the number of women working: In earlier generations, women were not in the workforce long enough to be eligible for benefits.
  • Growth in the overall working-age population
  • Increase in the Social Security retirement age: Workers receiving SSD benefits now must stay on SSD longer before switching to retirement benefits.

Facts in Response to Criticism of SSD

Republican critics of the disability system like to say that its fiscal problems are the result of the increase in the number of recipients. However, SSA actuaries report that problems with the financial underpinnings of the disability system are much more related to the recent recession. When fewer people are working, the Social Security Trust Fund receives less from payroll deductions.

Another criticism of SSD is that workers are using disability as an unemployment program. This is untrue. The White House Council of Economic Advisers found that there were probably fewer applications for SSD benefits since 2009 than one would expect, giving the severity of the financial downturn.

Finally, although the rate of disability benefit applications has increased, the rate of awards has barely budged since 1975. Congressional critics seem to overlook the fact that the U.S. population has been growing steadily and that expressing an increase in terms of raw numbers is not useful.

Critics Successful in Gutting System in Effort to Dismantle It

Many reports, including posts in this blog, have pointed to increasing waste and negligence in the way the SSA administers the disability benefits program. However, the agency has been significantly underfunded in recent years, and Congress appropriated much less than requested by the president between 2011 and 2013. As a result, the SSA has been forced to cut the number of employees by about 13 percent, even as the number of applications has increased. The consequences of such reductions are predictable: backlogs, decreasing ability to conduct continuing disability reviews and inability to investigate allegations of fraud and waste.

Something must be done if the government is to meet its obligations to workers who have paid into the system for years, but then become disabled and unable to work. Reallocating retirement and disability funds as has been done many times in the past is the most obvious way to "fix" the system for the next few years while long-term solutions are explored. However, congressional Republicans are adamant that the system is broken and cannot be fixed. If this approach continues, the United States will no longer be 30th out of 34th in the list of countries with disability programs; it will become dead last. This statistic should not make Americans proud.

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