The Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund was developed for people who are injured or sick, and who can no longer earn an amount in excess of $1,130 per month. During 1990 less than 2.5 percent of Americans above the age to work were collecting from this pool. During 2015, that number rose to 5.2 percent. This has necessitated the need for Congress to shift funds from Social Security’s main fund to the Disability Fund. The Disability Fund has been determined to be stable until the year 2023.
The chief actuary of Social Security, Stephen Goss has said “None of us should be surprised that the cost of the program was rising”. Over time older workers tend to be more prone to getting ill, and the workforce now includes women in larger numbers who are also eligible for benefits.
A rising trend has also affected the fund. People in certain areas of the U.S. are now applying for disability when they no longer have a job. In some cases, they work through an injury, and when their job is disappears, they apply for the benefits. These occur in economically depressed areas of the U.S. and are termed “disability belts” such as Appalachia, the Deep South, and on the Arkansas-Missouri border.
MIT economist David Autor, with his co-authors had written in a 2013 paper that Social Security disability insurance has faced numerous federal transfers due to areas that have sustained direct impacts by increased trade with Mexico and China. Yet another author, Dan Black of the University of Chicago indicated in a paper written in 2004 that disability claims occurring in Appalachia far outdistanced those in other areas of the country. David Autor claims that Social Security disability benefits are being used as unemployment insurance benefits for many.
During 1956 at the creation of the disability insurance fund, there were a set of medical conditions that determined a person’s eligibility for benefits. Congress extended the criteria in 1984 to include chronic pain and mental illness. The process for determining a person’s eligibility has changed from a simple checklist of illnesses to deciding if a person is able to function in an available job. Autor has indicated that “It’s not as if you go to the doctor, the doctor says, “I’m sorry, son, you’ve got a disability.” “It’s a social construct, because it’s about whether you can work.”
Ranking within the top 5 percent nationwide of people receiving benefits is Van Buren County, Ark. A total of 11.3 percent of adults of working age receive federal disability benefits. During 2006, Volex a major employer in Van Buren County moved its operation to Hermosillo, Mexico eradicating over 300 jobs. Thirty more jobs were lost due to damage from a tornado. More than half the shops in Clinton, the county seat have closed down further impacting the availability of jobs in the area.
One specific case involved Christa Cossey who obtained employment at 20 years old as a long haul truck driver. This is considered a well-paying job for someone who doesn’t have a college degree. By the age of 51, she was awarded disability for many ailments that were a direct effect from her years as a truck driver that included: obesity, asthma, chest pain, diabetes, fibromyalgia, high blood pressure and arthritis. In addition she also has degenerative disc disease, joint disease, and bulging discs in the lower area of her back.
During the lengthy process of getting approved for benefits, a vocational expert determined that Cossey would be able to perform work that was classified as sedentary, such as an operator at a call center. There were no jobs available that matched that description where she lived. Now she receives $1000 in disability and she supplements her income as a secret shopper which provides an additional $810 per month. “I would work as much as my body would let me,” she said. “I went from making over a thousand dollars a week to making less than that a month. It was hard.”
As a nonprofit employee, paid through Social Security to help people applying for benefits, Shannon Cleveland assists those who are trying to go back to work. Citing complicated rules and the potential for losing all of their small benefits along with their medical insurance, Cleveland reports that people are reluctant to seek employment. Cleveland, a quadriplegic from a car accident reports, “I talk to people who could work and they’re crying.”
When the fund runs short of money, Congressional interest peaks. During 2015, fraud investigative units were open in all 50 states. During 2013 over 70% of the Office of the Inspector General’s cases were fraud related. Recently that number has increased to 86 percent. Although the unit contends that it saved the fund over $400 million during 2015, total payments during that same period were $89 billion.
In the newly elected Congress, Representative French Hill, representing Van Buren County, will again introduce a bill reforming the disability insurance program. This bill will require additional reviews of recipients of disability benefits, who have short-term conditions. The bill will also provide that recipients may maintain partial benefits after they find employment, ending the ‘cut off’ situation. He attributes some of the problem to economics and job loss to other countries, but added “that’s not a reason not to think critically about the program.”
Economists have determined that the cause of a growing demand for benefits is not fraud, but loss of jobs and the constant aging of the worker pool.
If you have questions or comments, or need legal assistance as it pertains to Social Security, Disability or Personal Injury, please feel free to contact the Kenneth G. Marks Law Firm for a free consultation.
|Kenneth G. Marks Law Firm
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