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Michael Hiltzik

Do Republicans misunderstand Social Security, or just feign ignorance?

GOP's move to block a social Security fix shows they don't understand the program.

As a follow-up to our Tuesday post on the House GOP's assault on Social Security and its beneficiaries, it's proper to take a closer look at the rationale for the attack.

To recap, the GOP caucus passed a rule making it much harder, if not impossible, to reallocate Social Security payroll tax revenue from the program's retirement fund to its disability fund. The latter is in imminent trouble, expected to run out of reserves next year. At that point, disability benefits will have to be slashed about 20%.

Reallocation is a crucial near-term fix, and something that's been done nearly a dozen times since the 1980s to keep both the disability and old-age funds solvent. The new GOP rule allows any member to block it.

Kathy Ruffing of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points us to this explanation from the provision's sponsor, Rep. Tom Reed of New York. His intention, he says, "is to force us to look for a long term solution for SSDI [Social Security Disability Insurance] rather than raiding Social Security to bail out a failing federal program. Retired taxpayers who have paid into the system for years deserve no less."

Ruffing calls this a "revealing statement." So it is, in the sense that a big red "F" on a school paper reveals a pupil's profound lack of understanding. 

In the first place, SSDI is not "a failing federal program." It does exactly what it's supposed to do, which is provide sustenance for people who are too physically or mentally impaired to perform "substantial gainful activity," defined as the ability to earn $1,090 a month ($1,820 for the blind). Ruffing observes that that's less than 40% of the median earnings of a full-time worker with only a high school diploma. The impairment has to have lasted for five months and be expected to continue for 12 months or until death.

As for "raiding Social Security to bail out a failing federal program," the disability program is Social Security. Disability coverage was added to Social Security in 1956, or 15 years before Reed was born--under a Republican president. Coverage for dependents of disabled workers was added in 1958. 

"Statements like Representative Reed’s implicitly attempt to pit Social Security retirement and disability beneficiaries against each other," Ruffing writes. That attempt is pointless and irresponsible, because they're the same people. Social Security statistics show that workers currently aged 20 have a 27% chance of landing on disability before they reach retirement. 

Reed and his colleagues are exploiting the sharp growth in the disability rolls over recent decades to exploit the disabled as freeloaders and layabouts. To do so, they must deliberately ignore the extensive research that explains why that increase has happened: it can be explained virtually entirely by the aging of the U.S. population, the addition of women to the labor force, and the increase in Social Security's normal retirement age to 66 from 65. (The retirement age is still rising--for those born in 1960 and later, it will be 67.)

Dealing with America's intractable demographics is hard. That must be why House Republicans are taking the easy way out--declaring the disability program to be "broken," demonizing Americans who have paid for their benefits via payroll deductions, and disguising their contempt for workers by declaring that their goal is merely to find "long-term solutions" instead of a "short-term band aid," as Reed puts it.

His words would be more convincing if he actually proposed a long-term solution. He has previously observed that nearly 30,000 residents of his Western New York district receive disability payments, and he has shed press-release tears over the "unfair 20 percent decrease in their benefits" they face. So why is he making it harder to avert that cut?

The ball's in your court, Rep. Reed. Let's see your next move.

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