Might as well blame the soup kitchen

April 4th, 2013 · No Comments · Blog, Featured Home Page Post

acoffeeEvery time I hear that some media outlet is doing a piece on the “disability program problem,” I get a pit in the bottom of my stomach.

Why? Because despite the best of intentions, I know the story is going to leave the impression that somehow Social Security disability programs are broken and need to be overhauled. And, it is always seems to do so by taking the experience of a few individuals and blowing it completely out of proportion. I am rarely disappointed — especially when it comes to centrist media outlets such as NPR, The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Here’s a radical statement that goes against popular opinion: Social Security programs that help people with disabilities are not structurally broken.

The fact is, these programs are actually doing what they are supposed to do, namely, providing stable cash and medical assistance to people with significant disabilities.

AND, these programs also provide great opportunities for people to return to the workforce, if they choose to do so.

All these articles are doing is blaming Social Security for circumstances, situations and issues that are well outside the purview and control of Social Security programs.

This is the equivalent of blaming the soup kitchen for hunger. Or your doctor for your flu symptoms.

Take some examples from recent pieces:

NPR’s “Unfit For Work,” tells the story of a loving mother with an 18-year-old son who receives SSI. He wants to work. She won’t let him because she fears it will disrupt the stability of $710 a month from SSI.

From this story, we are supposed to conclude that SSI is forcing this mom and her child into this situation. But, aren’t we losing site of the bigger picture? How did we get to the point where a $710 per month is this child’s best option? If this mom lived in a middle class suburb with good schools and promising job prospects, would we even be having this discussion? Not likely.

Had NPR explored this issue further, they might have discovered that the federal government actually recognizes that parents and children are currently choosing SSI because they feel like it is their best option. And, rather than blaming SSI, they are trying to look deeper at how interventions at school, counseling, job training, and other supports can step in to create better options. They recently announced that they will award five “Promise Grants”  to states as a pilot to work on this issue specifically.

Another overused trope that arises in “disability program problem” articles is how people want to work but either can’t or are too scared to do so. The same NPR piece also tells the story of a woman in her twenties on SSI. She went to work as a tutor. The government reduced her SSI check. She, as the story put it, “freaked out and quit.”

This does happen. But it happens because people don’t understand that the Social Security Administration has actually built in many policies that (wait for it) encourage work.

Yes, that’s right. SSA wants you to try working, and encourages you to do so.

In this young woman’s case, yes, her check would be reduced.  But, she would have more money overall as it is a gradual reduction to the check that is always less then half of what she is earning. And, she can keep her Medicaid. So, in other words, when an SSI beneficiary works, they get to keep their work income, get a supplemental check from SSI (a bonus their non-disabled co-workers don’t enjoy) and free healthcare. A little bit of basic counseling on how the system works would go a long way. It could have kept this young woman tutoring, and perhaps, set her on a path to financial independence.

SSA has funded and will start funding again Work Incentive Planning and Assistance Projects that counsel people on Social Security benefits who are interested in working. Many state VR agencies, including red states like Texas and blue states like Washington, have put significant effort into educating and training their counselors to talk about working and benefits. Unfortunately, the editors and authors of “disability insurance problem” articles never seem to consult any of these subject matter experts.

The Social Security Administration’s disability programs cannot solve the broader social and economic issues impacting their applicants and beneficiaries. These larger issues will only be solved through complex public policy interventions and strategies beyond the scope of a cash benefit system. Since it is not genuinely feasible to dismantle income support programs like these without serious repercussions that nobody really wants, perhaps it’s time to take the target off the back of Social Security and aim it where a difference can actually be made.

John Coburn, Health & Disability Advocates



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