An­swers to a few cru­cial ques­tions on dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits for Amer­i­cans

The Washington Post Sunday - - DISABLED AMERICA - BY TER­RENCE MCCOY ter­rence.mccoy@wash­post.com

Be­tween 1996 and 2015, the num­ber of work­ing­age Amer­i­cans who sub­sist on fed­eral dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits grew rapidly, be­com­ing one of the coun­try’s most hotly de­bated so­cial ben­e­fits. The rise has be­come an­other in­di­ca­tor of the di­vide be­tween ur­ban and ru­ral Amer­ica, where dis­abil­ity ben­e­fit rates are nearly twice as high.

Here are an­swers to some of the most im­por­tant ques­tions about this form of pub­lic as­sis­tance.

Q: What pro­grams serve Amer­i­cans with dis­abil­i­ties?

A: Two fed­eral pro­grams pro­vide ben­e­fits to peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. One is So­cial Se­cu­rity Dis­abil­ity In­sur­ance (SSDI), which was signed into law in 1956 and

serves dis­abled work­ers. It is avail­able only to peo­ple with enough work ex­pe­ri­ence. The other, Sup­ple­men­tal Se­cu­rity In­come (SSI), which be­gan pay­ing ben­e­fits in 1974, serves the dis­abled poor and is a means-tested ben­e­fit.

Q: If the num­ber of peo­ple re­ceiv­ing dis­abil­ity has in­creased so much, it must be easy to get on the rolls, right?

A: Wrong. Dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits, for both SSI and SSDI ap­pli­cants, are very dif­fi­cult to se­cure. In fact, only about four in 10 ap­pli­ca­tions are ap­proved. It can take as long as two years, af­ter sev­eral lay­ers of ap­peals, to win ap­proval. Q: So what has driven the growth?

A: This is more con­tro­ver­sial. Most ex­perts agree that the pri­mary fac­tor in SSDI’s growth is de­mo­graph­ics. Be­cause of the aging of the baby-boom gen­er­a­tion, more peo­ple are at an age when dis­abil­ity is more likely. More women also are in the work­force. Then there is sim­ple pop­u­la­tion growth. Some ex­perts think those fac­tors rep­re­sent nearly all of the in­crease. But oth­ers point to a con­gres­sional act that broad­ened the def­i­ni­tion of dis­abil­ity, eco­nomic fac­tors such as re­ces­sions and ap­provals they crit­i­cize as too le­nient as con­tribut­ing fac­tors. Q: Is the num­ber of peo­ple on dis­abil­ity still ris­ing?

A: No. In 2015, for the first time in decades the num­ber of peo­ple on dis­abil­ity de­creased slightly as the de­mo­graphic fac­tors that

drove the rise started to sub­side and older Amer­i­cans aged into their re­tire­ment years.

Q: In that case, what’s the prob­lem?

A: The pro­gram for dis­abled work­ers, which Congress had to res­cue from in­sol­vency in 2015, is es­ti­mated to go broke again some­time over the next decade or so. The gov­ern­ment this year is ex­pected to spend $192 bil­lion on dis­abil­ity pay­ments — more than the com­bined to­tal that will be spent on wel­fare, un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, hous­ing sub­si­dies and food stamps. Q: What sort of in­come, in­di­vid­u­ally, does this pro­vide for re­cip­i­ents? A: A mea­ger one. The max­i­mum monthly pay­ment for an SSI ben­e­fi­ciary

is $735. The amount of money SSDI ben­e­fi­cia­ries re­ceive de­pends on how much money they made. The av­er­age monthly check is less than $1,200. For most ben­e­fi­cia­ries, the checks are not tax­able. Q: Do they re­ceive any other ser­vices?

A: Ben­e­fi­cia­ries re­ceive health in­sur­ance through Medi­care, for SSDI re­cip­i­ents, and Med­i­caid, for SSI re­cip­i­ents.

Q: Do ben­e­fi­cia­ries ever re­turn to work?

A: Rarely. Some die within a few years of start­ing ben­e­fits. Other dis­abled work­ers try to re­turn to work but don’t keep their jobs for long. Or they con­tinue work­ing but make less than the in­come thresh­old that would put

their ben­e­fit at risk. Less than 4 per­cent of dis­abled work­ers get off dis­abil­ity within 10 years of their first pay­ment.

Q: Are dis­abil­ity ben­e­fi­cia­ries spread evenly na­tion­wide?

A: The ma­jor­ity of dis­abil­ity re­cip­i­ents live in densely pop­u­lated ur­ban and subur­ban ar­eas, but they are dis­pro­por­tion­ately preva­lent in ru­ral Amer­ica — where, on av­er­age, 9.1 per­cent of the work­ing-age pop­u­la­tion re­ceives dis­abil­ity, com­pared with the na­tional av­er­age of 6.5 per­cent and an ur­ban rate of 4.9 per­cent. Ben­e­fi­cia­ries are even more over­rep­re­sented in the South­east and cen­tral Ap­palachia. These are places economists have called “dis­abil­ity belts.”

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