The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program provides vital benefits to 11 million workers with disabilities and their families, but much could be done to improve the program for those who depend on it, those who pay into it, and society as a whole. And while last year’s budget deal temporarily delayed the program’s funding crisis until 2022, it took only very minor steps toward improving the program.
Rather than wait until 2021 to begin a renewed discussion of the SSDI program – a tactic the political system relies on all too often -- Congress, the White House, and the Social Security Administration should use the next six years to develop and enact improvements to the SSDI program.
Our new book, SSDI Solutions: Ideas to Strengthen the Social Security Disability Insurance Program, should help policymakers to get started. The book, which was written by an impressive and diverse group of disability policy experts, features 12 thoughtful and well-vetted policy proposals to improve the SSDI program. The chapters propose changes to improve program administration, encourage work, and address interactions with other programs; and we hope they get a serious look.
SSDI is a complicated and interdependent program, and there are no silver bullets or easy answers. But based on our experience as Chairmen of the Social Security Subcommittee, and our work on the SSDI Solutions Initiative over the last two years – including numerous discussions with academics, advocates, practitioners, and legislators – we believe any reform effort should be guided by three broad-based recommendations.
First, the government must start testing potential improvements now. The most promising ideas to improve the SSDI program and other services for workers with disabilities are, for the most part, untested. We need to gather evidence to better understand what works and what doesn’t, and where there might be unintended consequences. The next six years provides the perfect opportunity to move forward with pilots and demonstration projects; but time is of the essence.
Second, policymakers should act to improve effectiveness, efficiency, and integrity of the SSDI program. Much more can be done to reduce fraudulent and erroneous payments, improve the accuracy and consistency of the determination and adjudication process, and make it simpler and easier for those who deserve benefits to receive them in a timely manner. A concerted effort to improve the program will require real policy changes, and it will also require us to fund the Social Security Administration adequately – though we must also demand accountability that those dollars are being spent well.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, policymakers should promote work and improve supports for disabled workers by looking beyond SSDI’s traditional cash benefits. This starts with flexible and well-designed early intervention programs that use incentives, supports, job training, adaptive equipment, and other strategies to help workers collect a paycheck instead of a disability check. It also means streamlining the way SSDI interacts with other public and private programs so that workers with disabilities are receiving the proper combination of services in the most efficient and pro-growth way. And finally, it means considering structural reforms to the SSDI program itself so that it can better recognize the realities of disability that simply aren’t captured in a binary, all-or-nothing program.
None of this will be easy, but in our view a serious effort to pursue programmatic improvements to the SSDI program and other services for workers with disabilities is absolutely necessary. Done right, these changes have the potential to not only improve the lives of Americans living with disabilities, but also ensure that the program works better for taxpayers contributing to the program and the economy as a whole.
There are many ideas out there to start this process – a number of them are featured in our book and others are available elsewhere. But any menu of ideas is only as good as those ordering from it. We hope that policymakers will use wisely the time they have available by engaging in a bipartisan conversation on how to improve this important program and the lives of Americans with disabilities.
Former Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., served from 1988 to 2009. Former Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., served from 1993 to 2011.