Michael Hiltzik

The attack on the disabled buried in the president's new budget

Wouldn't you know it: Just as social insurance advocates were breathing a sigh of relief that President Obama had dropped the obnoxious chained-CPI idea from his proposed budget, he sneaked another noxious idea into it.

This one undermines the Social Security disability program in the name of "savings" on an unimaginably trivial scale. Worse, it does nothing useful to address the disability program's looming fiscal crisis. That crisis is ignored completely in this budget.

The bad idea is a cutoff of disability benefits to anyone who is collecting unemployment benefits. The underlying idea is that this is somehow "double-dipping," and that people who collect both are just ripping off the system. The president's budget language reflects that misconception of both the disability and unemployment programs -- it refers to the goal of "preventing" individuals from collecting both benefits for the same period of time, and calls it a "reform."

ALSO: The shameful attack on the disabled by "60 Minutes"

As for the supposed savings, according to the president's budget they would come to $3.2 billion over 10 years. That's less than seven thousandths of a percent of projected federal spending in the same period -- finding that amount of money in the budget is like looking for a grain of salt parked under a pea on your dinner plate.

We first raised the alarm about this cutoff in January, when it surfaced as (unbelievably) a Democratic proposal in Congress. (Their estimate of the savings was about $1 billion over 10 years.) Here's how we described its impact then:

"It uniquely burdens the disabled among all workers, and it sets a terrible precedent of raiding Social Security to pay for other social programs. As a coalition of disabled advocacy groups put it in a letter to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, the measure would mean "worsening the economic security of workers with disabilities and their families at a time when the economy continues to struggle." 

This "reform" is based on the unjustified treatment of disability pay and unemployment compensation as two sides of the same coin, so that receiving one should disqualify you from the other. 

But that's not how the programs are designed. Social Security disability is supposed to be a bridge to full employment. Its benefits aren't intended as a substitute for wages, but as a supplement.

By law, disabled beneficiaries can earn up to $1,070 a month in wages this year without jeopardizing their benefits; the goal is for them to "test their ability to return to work" and ease their transition back into the labor market.

Nor is this some sort of scam to get rich. The average monthly disability benefit was about $1,130 last year and the average unemployment check $1,200. Add them together, and they sum to poverty level income for a family of four. 

It's proper to observe that treating disability recipients as scammers and slackers comes directly out of the right-wing playbook, in which victory is defined as cutting benefits for the neediest in society. Sadly, that goal is abetted by lazy and incurious news producers at places like NPR and "60 Minutes," as we've observed in the past. 

RELATED: Bye-bye, chained CPI

Advocates for the disabled are properly appalled by the inclusion of this pointless provision in the new budget. "While rare, receiving Social Security Disability Insurance and Unemployment Insurance is consistent and appropriate when eligibility requirements for both programs are met," the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives stated after the budget's release. Their efforts to educate the policy-making class in Washington have fallen, so far, on deaf ears.

What's saddest about this is that the Social Security Disability program faces a genuine funding crisis. Its trust fund is likely to run out of money in 2016. In past years, this persistent shortfall has been relieved by Congressional action to transfer funds from Social Security's old-age program. But that's a stopgap measure, and an inadequate step when what's needed is a long-term fiscal fix, most appropriately by raising the payroll tax to shore up the program.

Even the new budget provision won't help -- the money extracted from the disabled would be diverted to other federal programs, not retained in the Social Security system. That's adding insult to injury, and aiming it at people who already have been injured quite enough. 

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email. MORE FROM MICHAEL HILTZIK

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