Cutting Disability Benefits Will Not Solve the Social Security Problem

September 15,2015
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On November 14th Andrew Biggs wrote an op-ed piece in the NY Times pointing out that Disability is the fastest growing piece of the Social Security pie and implying both explicitly and implicitly that many recipients are unworthy. Mr. Biggs suggests that allocating more money to the CDR’s (Continuing Disability Reviews) would be wise and would save money by assuring that only the disabled remain on the rolls.

His assertions contain two major fallacies. First, as one who has practiced Disability Law since the 1980’s I can assure you that Congress did NOT pass “looser eligibility standards in the 1980’s.” What actually happened then was that the governors of all 50 states (the states being contracted by Social Security to do the initial determinations and CDR’s) were so appalled by the Reagan Administration’s attempt to limit the number of new beneficiaries and squeeze those already receiving benefits that they refused to execute the policies set forth by that Administration. In response, Congress passed laws that clarified the current methods and how they were to be applied.

The second fallacy in Mr. Biggs’ argument is that costs have risen because increasing numbers of claimants hire attorneys, causing the SSA to lose two-thirds of claimants’ appeals against denied benefits. The reason that the SSA loses two-thirds of the appeals of initial claims is because the State Agencies still routinely deny valid claims. Mr. Biggs suggests giving more weight to the agency’s expert witnesses; these so-called experts, who are paid by the SSA, routinely give cursory or worse examinations.

According to Mr. Biggs’ own figures, disability payments make up only 18% of the total Social Security expenditures. By Social Security’s own numbers, only 5% of the people whose claims are reviewed lose their benefits. That means that 95% of the people who are receiving benefits deserve them. It is astounding for Mr. Biggs to suggest that tightening up regulations would get rid of unworthy beneficiaries, thereby significantly reducing expenditures.

Finally, it should not go unsaid that two-thirds of the people who are denied by Social Security never even bother to appeal. The real tragedy is the number of people who are disabled and deserving of benefits, but who are too discouraged to fight for them.

Lew Insler