U.S. disability program needs reform, and now

Several years ago, a man riding a motorcycle saw a house on fire. He parked, ran into the home and helped carry out a disabled woman.

And what did he do for a living? Well, he was disabled, he said, which made him no less a hero.

But it did make us wonder how someone riding a motorcycle can be ineligible for "substantial gainful employment," which is considered to be $1,040 a month by the Social Security Administration.

Many working people probably have a similar story to tell about encountering a person who seems capable of doing some form of work only to learn the person is disabled and collecting disability insurance benefits.

It is particularly galling when the person is young and, perhaps, throwing a Frisbee in Kennedy Park.

Over the past 40 years, the number of Americans on DI has increased sixfold, from 1.4 million in 1970 to 8.3 million in 2011.

In 1970, 1.3 percent of working-age adults, those between 20 and 64, received DI benefits. Today, it's 4.5 percent.

Some of the increase is easy to explain. Workers are more likely to become disabled as they get older, and the percentage of older workers is growing.

On the other hand, work has become less risky and physically demanding as we have shifted to a service economy so, presumably, fewer people should be injured and able to work longer with mild disabilities at less strenuous jobs.

Over those years, many women joined the workforce, increasing the number of people eligible for benefits. Today, 2.1 percent of DI beneficiaries are women and 2.4 percent men.

Twice in the past 40 years, Congress has expanded the number of maladies covered by DI and included more subjective illnesses, like aching backs and depression. As a result, workers are entering the system at younger ages and staying for longer periods of time.

The Social Security Administration estimates that by 2022, 5 percent of working-age adults will be receiving DI benefits. Meanwhile, the program is scheduled to run out of money by 2016.

There are a host of options available to Congress: reducing benefits, decreasing cost-of-living adjustments or increasing DI taxes on current workers.

For some, receiving disability benefits may seem better than working.

The average DI beneficiary receives $13,200 a year. Meanwhile, a person working full-time, year-round at the minimum wage would earn $15,600.

Remember, $13,200 is the average benefit, meaning half of recipients receive more. They can earn up to $9,000 a year over and above that without losing benefits and, after two years, can receive free Medicare health coverage.

As a result, disability may look like an attractive option to anyone stuck on the lower rungs of the wage scale, or a person forced out of work and out of options. And, indeed, applications for DI benefits have jumped sharply during this recession.

Although there are varying levels of disability and periodic reviews, the truth is that people who receive disability are very unlikely to leave the program before turning 65 and switching to Social Security benefits.

That may be because the program requires no re-training or rehabilitation program. 

Another added cost is the variation in positive decisions granted by administrative law judges. While the average judge grants DI in about 60 percent of cases, some judges are in the 90-95 percent range. One judge in West Virginia only denied benefits in four cases out of 2,013 cases he handled over 18 months.

Since cases are assigned to judges randomly, the variation clearly shows the process is flawed.

Rather than raising taxes or borrowing, Congress should do two things:

Establish an expectation that people will return to work and require retraining, job placement and more frequent reviews, especially for the youngest and least disabled. A new program in Great Britain found that every $1 spent on reviews and retraining resulted in $11 of savings.

Secondly, Congress must establish a system for examining why some judges grant disability so often and other judges do not.

Since the average DI beneficiary earns $247,000 over time in the program, bringing those judges into line could help save the program by saving billions of dollars.


The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

(Most of the statistics in this editorial came from the Social Security Administration and a Congressional Budget Office report of 2012 titled "Policy Options for the Social Security Disability Insurance Program.")

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Bruce Hixon's picture


Accusing someone who pulled over their automobile with a disability tag to drag a man out of a burning building or home would not have resulted in an accusation of fraud. The author is obviously uninformed of electric starts on todays motorcycles. Had it been a disabled person jumping out of a car to drag a person to safety at the risk of injuring himself, would the story still be about fraud? No! I am of the opinion that your editorial board lacks any form of education, appreciation or rational thought. Your story was misguided, wrong and a disservice to Maines people. How many of those people are veterans disabled protecting your right to free IGNORANT speech. Perhaps it's just what we need to expect from the Sun Journal. Pathetic opinion guys, smarten up.

Betty Davies's picture

A different view...

1) Being able to ride a motorcycle is not proof that a person is not disabled. A person who has schizophrenia could ride a motorcycle. A person who is mentally retarded could ride a motorcycle. Even some people with a disabling medical/physical condition could ride a motorcycle now and then, if they've taken painkillers (probably against doctor's orders, though, since the painkillers might make this unsafe).

2) OK, look into why some judges readily grant disability and some don't. But how about also letting the psychologists and neuropsychologists who evaluate applicants use specialized tests that can weed out fakers from non-fakers? Right now, Disability Determination rules forbid this. Their rationale is that some genuinely disabled people fake extra symptoms out of fear that their disability won't be noticed by the person testing them. But there could be a mechanism for them to appeal and be re-tested.

3) Along with preventing our neighbor from raking in maybe $250,000 over 30 or 40 years, let's also worker harder to remove special tax breaks for billionaires, go after their offshore accounts that duck taxes altogether, and target corporations that pay ZERO taxes while sending America's jobs overseas. We lose trillions of dollars per year to scams by the 1%.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

Dear editorial board, if you only had a clue....

Every time I read an editorial like this one, it makes my blood boil. When writing inflammatory articles like this, do you realize what your doing to REAL disabled people?
We all know there is fraud in the system, there may even be lax requirements. Though I doubt that anyone who proclaims SSDI as easy to receive, has never actually gone thru the process. I wonder if the editorial staff has ever suffered with a medical condition severe enough to qualify a person for SSDI, and go through the months of not knowing when the help will arrive. The rent is still due on the same day, food is still required to keep up strength. On top of everything else there's the medical condition that put you here in the first place.
If someone were to see me walking down the street, I may not appear to be totally disabled, but looks have a way of deceiving you. I could probably ride a motorcycle , with an automatic transmission. I drive my huge SUV all by myself, I'm 6'1", 240 lbs. and look quite normal. I posted, quite a while ago, that sometimes I wished a leg would fall off, it would make my life so much easier. I even have a boat, I plan to spend as much time fishing as possible. People may see that as being friviless, and unbecoming a cripple, but what am I supposed to do? Is there a rule the Social Security Office, hasn't explained to me yet? Just because I'm disabled doesn't mean I can't strive for as normal a life as possible. that would also include not having to defend myself from nay-sayers. I doubt the Editorial board, can understand our daily lives, the medications, and worse of all the pain treatment. Yea, thats the stuff that helps us look sort of normal. There's a lot that goes on that people never witness, that's because when your in excruciating pain, the last place you want to be is dancing down the street. One other thing, where did you get the information on the free Medicare after two years? For regular Medicare Part A,B and D, it costs me about one hundred fifty dollars per month. An additional supplemental health plan is another hundred or so dollars per month. Thats all right out of my check.
An editorial like this, is aimed at finding the cheats, unfortunately it points a huge accusational finger at all of us. I really don't need to, or want to explain my disabilities again and again. Imagine if you had a broken wrist, I'm pretty sure you would get real tired of explaining how you broke it, over and over again after a few years or so. Welcome to our world.
Please try to remember something in future editorials of this nature. There are a lot of cheats out there, we all know that. There are also a lot of actual people who for a myriad of reasons are disabled. Please consider them before the next time you try to ignite a firestorm of doubt..........

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

If you're as legitimate as

If you're as legitimate as you say, and I don't doubt for a second you are, why are you always so defensive? You need to grow another layer of hide, Frank.

MARK GRAVEL's picture

Come on Frank, we are all

Come on Frank, we are all adults here. The first step to fixing a problem is to identify a problem; to accomplish that task, we must talk about it.

God help this fragile world we live in (hint of sarcasm).

FRANK EARLEY's picture

Point taken, but....

You are correct in that we do need to address the problem. First we need to identify what the problem actually is. That could be a lot more tricky than you think.
People who are breaking the law are the culprits in this, therefore how is it the systems fault. I can't remember one case of someone saying that the entire banking system is flawed because someone actually robbed a bank. Someone consciously decided to break a law. That right there suddenly divides this problem up into two parts. The criminals, and the honest folks. Now we're describing the inner workings of just about every system in the world. Unfortunately, as long as you have systems in place, your going to have criminals out there trying to beat them. It's almost a part of life.
When a grocery store is robbed, does the company or government decide to demand background checks, and credit checks before going through the metal detector, on every customer before they can shop in that store again? No, they focus on catching the criminal. Hell when it comes to banks, the FBI gets involved, to catch the robber. Not punish the rest of the customers.
In a nut shell, that's all I'm saying. Go after the root cause of the problem in a way that doesn't cast a vail of suspicion on everyone. Being disabled is hard, constantly being asked to prove it is a living hell.
Some here feel I'm being defensive about being disabled, maybe I am, but it's not for myself. I am this way because I've learned first hand, what it's like to be put down or treated unfairly, and worse of all totally ignored in society. If you don't believe me, try doing your shopping from one of those power chairs they have at "Walmart". You will experience the true feeling of becoming invisible, the second you sit in that chair. I bitch and moan for all the people who can't bitch and moan. I honestly don't think I will get any results from this, but I bet there are a few folks out there who feel a little better. I know I sure do.......

P.S. I have a handicapped plates, and not only do I limp. I fall down a lot for no
apparent reason. I have been accused more than once of drunk shopping.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

I'd say you more than qualify

I'd say you more than qualify for the H.C. plates, which makes you the exception rather than the rule.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

I doubt they have handicapped parking at the launch...

I just wish they had someone there to keep reminding me not to stand up in the damn boat. I enjoy inviting friends fishing with me, I'm sure other peoples plans don't include pulling me out of the water every time I think I get a bite :( :( :)

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

Never eat fish that would eat

Never eat fish that would eat you first if it had the chance.

MARK GRAVEL's picture

Do you still use our boat?

Do you still use our boat?

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

What I want to know is are

What I want to know is are there Handicapped mooring slips at the place where you dock your boat? 0O:)

FRANK EARLEY's picture

First we need to register the boat and trailer for the summer...

Did you say OUR boat? lets see, all that divided by two, I'll let you know what the bill will be. In the meantime, get your fishing gear ready....

Steve  Dosh's picture

Frank ? 11:11 Friday You're

Frank ? 11:11 Friday
You're right . They're wrong •  If one has never been disabled . .. well. .they are just clueless. . 24 x 7 x 365 . i used to have a blind computer programmer working for me @ http://www.usaid.gov . Seriously . Jim Ross . Genius . How do people like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles ( R I P ) play the piano , n e way ?
b t w - Good editorial Rex . It raises some valid points • We live in a humane and compassionate society , thank God . Do enjoy a nice weekend everyone
:) /s Dr. Dosh http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disability_rights_movement Equal rights , roles , protections & responsibilities and opportunities for all . That's what we are about •

 's picture

Doctors and Lawyers

A good place to start would be with the Doctors and Lawyers who have to sign off on these individuals with so called disabilities. We all can relate to who these people are.

One young man who comes to mind has a handicap plate on his truck but proudly drives around town with either his four wheeler or snowmobile in the back. If he is supposedly disabled how in hell does he have the ability to load and unload these machines, say nothing about riding them.

In 1999 I had a back operation and the first thing the Doctor told me on my follow up appointment, was he was going to sign a paper so I could get a handicap plate it's that easy, I guess you know what I told him.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

Did you ever consider????

Did you ever consider that just maybe the handicapped plate may be for the guy's wife or elderly parent, or even a child. You can never tell from a distance......

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

I can think of few things in

I can think of few things in this society that are more abused than handicapped plates. I've yet to see a person with a limp ingress or egress from a car with such plates. No, I'm not talking about the wheelchair bound individuals for whom they were probably originated in the first place. If you'll take the time to notice, the handicap symbol does symbolize a wheelchair.

Betty Davies's picture

They could fit ONE symbol on the plate

There was no room for symbols for congestive heart failure, severe pain from cancer, and so on. Lack of a limp does not equal lack of a handicap.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

I think we all know that, but

I think we all know that, but I also think we all know of the abuse that takes place by the fakers. One does not negate the other.

Bruce Hixon's picture

I think we know that?

Paul, return to the top of your posts and follow them down. This is constant with you. Everyone is a faker or fraud with you. If he had been in a car with a disabled plate would you have the same opinion? In his position, if you were disabled, would you have acted the same in a effort to save someones life? Some people are selfless in the face of danger. I also suspect that you wouldn't. I thank the guy either way!! Courage is a good thing.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

I think my posts are pretty

I think my posts are pretty good. My issue is not with the guy mentioned in the editorial nor anyone who legitimately warrants a HC plate. My issue is with the FAKERS who have them and retain them with impunity. I hope that's clear enough for you. And, if my posts annoy you, don't read them. Your suspecting you think you know what I might or might not do in a given situation, speaks loads about you.
You and I may have common ground here, but so far, it is well disguised.

 's picture


If your referring to the above incident I no full well this individual personally by name and the fact it is him that has the plate and not a family member!


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