Michael Hiltzik

GOP shows it doesn't understand Social Security disability--and doesn't care

Memo to Mike Enzi, R-Wyo--Social Security disability won't go "broke"--unless you make it happen

Many disabled American workers and disability advocates may have hoped that the Senate's Republican majority would try to understand the crisis facing Social Security's disability program. Those hopes were slaughtered Wednesday.

The killing floor was the hearing room of the Senate Budget Committee. There, Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) not only displayed a shocking level of ignorance of Social Security and the disability program, but offered no solutions whatsoever to the looming crisis--which he repeatedly mischaracterized. 

Republicans as a breed seem to have a biological resistance to hearing the truth about Social Security Disability. Enzi's opening statement amounted to an anthology of misconceptions. Significant swaths of the prepared statements of three of the four witnesses--acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin, Stanford Economics Professor Mark Duggan and Kate Lang of the National Senior Citizens Law Center were devoted to facts and figures undermining Enzi's preconceptions. (The fourth, from Philip de Jong of the University of Amsterdam, was of doubtful relevance to the U.S. disability program.)

Whether the facts will jolt the GOP out of its reverie will only be seen over time, as it works on the disability issue. Don't expect much. 

The raw truth is this: The reserve, or trust fund, from which the disability program receives about 20% of its funding is expected to run dry in 2016. If nothing is done, disability payments, which currently average about $1,068 a month to 11 million disabled persons and their family members, will have to be cut by that same percentage. Colvin called that "a death sentence" for those beneficiaries.

Colvin spoke up for the most reasonable fix: reallocate a small portion of the Social Security payroll tax from its old-age account to disability for five years. That would extend the life of the disability reserve to 2033; the exhaustion date of the old-age reserve would move from 2034 (according to the system trustees' latest reckoning) to 2033. As Colvin stated, this staves off any near-term benefit cuts, brings the financing of both programs into line, as it should be, and leaves nearly two decades for Congress and the White House to work out a longer-term strategy. 

Enzi and his Republican colleagues would have none of it. "All this does is pass the buck to another Congress, and another president," he said. 

How little does Enzi understand about Social Security? He kept repeating that disability is going "broke." It's not "going broke"; it will continue to have enough money coming in year after year to fund 80% of currently scheduled benefits. That's not "broke" by any definition of the word.

Enzi also trotted out one of the hoariest lies about Social Security in the conservatives' playbook: the claim that there's no money in either the old-age or disability trust fund.

"Don’t trust a federal trust fund," he said. "There are not dollars stashed away anywhere. There are no dollars in the disability trust fund and there are no dollars in the Social Security trust fund.... We spent the money." 

As we've written before, this assertion is nothing but an attempt to cheat working Americans of the benefits they've paid for. The trust funds hold trillions of dollars of U.S. Treasury bonds bought and paid for by payroll taxes collected from American workers since 1983; these transfers have been certified, in writing, every year by U.S. treasury secretaries and other cabinet members, Republican and Democrat, and accepted by Congress. If the money's gone, they should all go to jail--but you won't hear that said by Enzi or his cronies.

The only way the money can be judged "spent" is if Enzi and the rest of Congress vote to cut the benefits workers already have paid for. That's what he seems to be plotting. 

As was explained by Duggan, no particular fan of the disability program as currently structured, the reasons for the recent increase in disability rolls are well understood.

They include the aging of the baby boomers, the entry of more women into the workplace, an increase in the Social Security retirement age that steered more people into disability rather than retiring at 62, a bad economy that disproportionately deprived disabled people of gainful employment, and the liberalization of disability definitions dating back to the 1980s.

Duggan also explained a trend that has been cited by other experts, including Steve Goss, the chief Social Security actuary: these factors have peaked. Disability rolls have plateaued and are starting to shrink. 

Enzi insisted that the disability program needs to be "modernized." But it's his own conception that needs to be "modernized." He and the GOP majority are holding on to a cherished image of disabled persons as members of a fictional genre known as "the undeserving poor." Their goal is to rationalize cuts in benefits by portraying their recipients as morally depraved. The truth, as Colvin pointed out Wednesday, is that disability is not easy to get, can't be obtained merely by claiming to be hurt, and already maintains its recipients at a disgracefully stringent economic level.

The Republican tactic, repeated by Enzi, is to divide disability recipients into the deserving ones, who we need to assist, and the undeserving, who should be driven out of the program as malingering layabouts. That's an insult to all disabled workers, and its real goal isn't to help the needy but to slash assistance for all of them.

Wednesday's hearing was an opportunity for the new GOP majority to show whom it represents. Plainly, it's not the average American worker.

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