Distorting the truth about disability insurance

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Over the last few weeks, some pundits have hyped the coincidence that more people began collecting Social Security Disability Insurance than there were jobs created in the United States. They do this to create the impression the economy is weak and the government is giving away free money. In an election year, it is easy to understand why those hoping to unseat our current president would make hay out of this scenario. But there is more to this story.
 
Yes, government reports show that the economy created 80,000 jobs in June, while 85,000 workers enrolled in the Social Security Disability Insurance program. But comparing these figures is extremely misleading. Disability beneficiary numbers are rising due to factors that were set in motion many years ago.
 
First, “Baby Boomers”— Americans born post World War II, between 1946 and 1964--  are reaching the age where injury, illness, or disease more frequently knocks them out of the workforce. As Boomers’ ages increase, so do their medical problems.  For example: a delivery truck driver who started having back pain in his 30s, might be unable to sit or even move by his 60s. This leaves him unable to work and therefore eligible for SSDI.
 
Another major factor is that there are more women in the workforce now than ever before, and thus more women are qualified for disability benefits. In 1970, less than 40 percent of women were insured for disability; in 2010, that number was almost 70 percent.  And just like men, women too suffer from debilitating health conditions that keep them from being able to hold down a job.
 
Steve Goss, the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration testified about these trends before the United States Congress just a few months ago.  Even though this information is publicly available, nearly every article pretending that there is a link between June's job numbers and disability claims ignores the facts.
 
As attorneys who represent disabled Americans trying to collect SSDI benefits, we have the duty to defend our clients against attacks on their character.  First, the claim made by a member of Congress that disability benefits are a form of slavery is misguided and disrespectful. Disability benefits protect the most vulnerable members of our society, who have no other options.
 
Consider that when many people come to us for help to collect Disability Insurance, they have a mailing address. But by the time the daunting claims process is completed, which in 2012 averaged 111 days , many of these folks are living in homeless shelters or worse. In our home cities of Atlanta and Akron, we both know in which homeless shelters or under which bridges we can find our clients once they lose their homes. Disability claimants are not living large on the government dole. In fact, most claim disability benefits only when everything else they try fails to provide the minimal support disability benefits offer.
 
All of our clients would rather be healthy and working as productive members of society. After all, to collect Social Security disability insurance benefits they had to be employed for years. These folks want to work, it is just not possible for them.


We understand this is a political season and that politics will infect every debate in Washington -- including those regarding programs like disability insurance. But the facts must be known.  Disability benefits have been growing due to an aging population and changing workforce demographics.  While we support finding tools to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse in SSDI -- which accounts for less than one percent of spending -- we all must insist that Washington do the right thing and protect our most vulnerable members of society.  It is wrong to use them as pawns in a political drama by promulgating misleading facts about people with disabilities.
 
Martin is the current president of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives (NOSSCR), and Shifrin is the vice president. Both are practicing attorneys representing Disability Insurance claimants.