Social Security disability fraud is rare

Today the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means is holding a hearing to examine disturbing allegations that a group of firefighters, police officers and others in New York City may have fraudulently obtained Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.

As a long-time advocate for people with disabilities, I applaud the close scrutiny of these extremely troubling allegations by the Social Security Administration, New York City law enforcement, and the House of Representatives. Few things make me angrier than disability fraud, which jeopardizes the economic security of the millions of play-by-the rules Americans with disabilities. Any abuse of vital programs like Social Security Disability Insurance MUST be investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

These stories of alleged abuse promote the false assumption that fraud is rampant in the SSDI program. Nothing could be farther from the truth. According to Social Security’s watchdogs, ”fraud” in Social Security Disability Insurance is extremely rare. Despite the media attention to allegations of fraud, it is absolutely critical for the public to know the circumstances of the people who rely on SSDI.

People like Kira, who lives with cerebral palsy, and whose Social Security Disability Insurance benefits mean the difference between eating and not eating. People like Carol, who worked as a rare documents archivist at the Library of Congress until she suffered a severe traumatic brain injury after being hit by a car while riding her bike to work. Thankfully, Social Security Disability Insurance has enabled Carol and her family to keep their home from foreclosure.

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Our nation’s Social Security system – including Disability Insurance – keeps millions of hardworking Americans like Kira and Carol out of poverty. Benefits average just $1,130 per month. Modest as these amounts are, benefits provide vital support, making it possible to secure stable housing and purchase food, life-sustaining medications, and other basic necessities.

It takes a lot more than just being out of work to quality for SSDI. Workers must have paid into the Social Security system for long enough to be covered in case of disability. Additionally, an applicant must provide extensive medical evidence of a severe disability, illness or injury. The disability standard is so strict that fewer than four in ten applicants are approved for disability benefits, even after all stages of appeal. Many are terminally ill -- Social Security Disability Insurance beneficiaries are over three times more likely to die than others their age, and nearly one in five men and one in women die within five years of receiving benefits

During today’s hearing, you’ll likely hear rhetoric about the huge growth in the SSDI rolls. It’s true that SSDI is serving more people, but this growth is almost entirely due to changes in demographics. A new study puts this in stark numbers: increases over the past four decades are almost entirely (90 percent) due to population growth, the aging of the baby boom generation into the high-disability years, and the entry of women in the workforce in greater numbers in the 1970s and 80s so that more are now insured based on their own contributions. Together, these three factors account for 94% of growth from 1990 – 2008. 

The Social Security Administration operates on a tremendously lean administrative budget, equal to just 1.4 percent of benefits paid each year – and works hard to ensure program integrity. But it has recently been deprived of the administrative resources it needs to conduct vital program integrity work– a penny-wise, pound- foolish decision. Congress holds the purse strings, and should provide the Social Security Administration with the resources it needs to ensure that benefits are paid to the right person, in the right amount, and at the right time — and to implement the array of critical checks and safeguards that exist in current law.

I urge the Social Security Administration, law enforcement, and Congress to continue to examine the New York City allegations and any other potential abuse vigorously and completely. Moreover, anyone who suspects abuse of the Social Security disability programs should report it via Social Security’s hotline 1-800-269-0271 or online at www.oig.ssa.gov.

The Social Security Disability Insurance program is one of the most important lifelines for vulnerable people with disabilities. A small number of alleged thieves must not be the justification for cutting essential supports to law-abiding people with disabilities.

Neas is chairperson of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities and senior vice president for Government Relations at Easter Seals.