Trump's Budget & Social Security Disability
President Donald Trump rode a wave of anti-establishment populism straight into the White House, offering a message appealing to many blue-collar workers. The pitch was simple: save money by cutting waste and abuse while maintaining or improving essential government programs. The rallying cry of "drain the swamp" made for great political theatre.
Unfortunately, political theatre and political reality are rarely the same, a lesson many Americans learned the hard way when the Trump Administration unveiled its first federal budget proposal. The definition of "the swamp" had suddenly shifted to include massive cuts to programs many voters consider essential. Among these proposed cuts is a plan to slash $64 billion from the Social Security Disability Program (SSDI).
Approximately 9 million Americans receive benefits through the Social Security Disability Insurance program. The program is designed to protect workers who become injured or disabled while working by providing benefits to help them get by while they are unable to continue on the job. Although SSDI covers workers of all ages, most recipients are over the age of 55 years old.
Social Security: A Brief History
Many Americans do not fully understand what this program is, how it's funded, and whether or not it is genuinely "Social Security" despite the first two words of its name. To answer these questions, it is essential to understand the way Americans view the concept of Social Security. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the original Social Security Act into law on August 15, 1935. The law created a social insurance program to pay a benefit to retired workers age 65 or older. The need for the program was palpable. During the Great Depression, millions of older Americans found themselves poverty-stricken with no realistic way to earn a living. Roosevelt made the argument that allowing an entire class of Americans to suffer in times of economic hardship created a negative impact on the population as a whole and that relieving the need to worry about supporting older family members would remove a huge burden from the working class.
What many fail to understand even eight decades after the original Social Security Act became law, is that benefits are not guaranteed to every American when they reach the age of 65. To qualify for benefits, you need to have 40 credits (usually ten years of employment) or be the widow or widower of someone who has. If you qualify, the amount you receive is determined based on your highest earning 35 years of employment.
Anyone who has ever examined the deductions on their pay stub can tell you that Social Security is not free money. The American people collectively pay for the program with payroll taxes deducted by their employer. Social Security is an insurance program. You pay into the fund while you work in exchange for a dividend when you're too old to work. Some will get more than they paid in and some will get less based on individual circumstances, but the general idea is to protect the national economy by preventing widespread poverty among the oldest people in the nation who can no longer work.
The Social Security Act was conceived as the basis of the "social safety net," based on the premise that the net will save Americans who are unable to work from poverty by the net. Before long, it became clear that this net had some serious holes in it.
One of the most significant holes dealt with those who had been paying into Social Security but were suddenly unable to continue working (and therefore paying into Social Security) due to severe disability or injury. These concerns, particularly for blue-collar workers, were addressed two decades later when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed amendments to the Social Security Act into law on August 1, 1956. These changes created the Social Security Disability Insurance program under the umbrella of the Social Security Act.
Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)
SSDI was originally designed to provide benefits only to disabled workers between the ages of 50 and 65. The idea of government-backed disability benefits was part of the original debate surrounding the passage of Social Security in 1935, but the idea did not survive to the final version of the bill. Much as the Great Depression fueled the need for Social Security benefits, SSDI was a product of historical circumstances. The industrial buildup during World War II, along with the post-war boom, meant more serious workplace injuries than ever before and drove a new public awareness of the problems faced by those disabled in the course of work.
SSDI is more politically controversial than traditional Social Security benefits because unlike the black and white facts determining whether someone is eligible for Social Security, eligibility for SSDI is often subject to interpretation. There is a prevailing sentiment, fed by politicians, interest groups, and the media, that many SSDI applicants are in fact lazy, not disabled. The desire to screen out beneficiaries who could be working has resulted in a complicated bureaucratic procedure for approval of SSDI benefits. It can take months or even years for an applicant to receive benefits.
What's In Store For SSDI?
President Trump promised not to cut Social Security, so is his proposed $64 billion cut to SSDI a separate issue or a broken promise? The answer is subject to political interpretation, but SSDI is undoubtedly part of the Social Security Act. It also cannot be denied that the benefits are funded by workers, not by the government itself.
So, what would the cuts to SSDI look like? According to Trump Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, the target would be to eliminate benefits for people who do not need them, which is obviously an explosive proposition for Americans seeking SSDI benefits as a way to survive financially after a serious injury. Applicants can expect to see tightened restrictions in the application process, more layers of bureaucratic review to determine whether the application is legitimate, and other procedural roadblocks.
Another serious limitation facing current SSDI beneficiaries is the possibility of requiring unemployment compensation and disability benefits to offset one another. This maneuver would have an immediate negative impact on those receiving both as a way to make ends meet.
Cuts to SSDI could drive the imposition of harsh work requirements as a barrier to receiving SSDI benefits. Under these requirements, beneficiaries who are deemed qualified for suitable employment may be denied even if the employment in question does not exist. For example, if you could theoretically stand for two hours a day doing light labor and sit for another six, you would be denied benefits even though there is no job available for you.
Will the Trump Administration push forward with these proposed SSDI cuts? Will there be pushback from Congress about how the cuts will negatively impact people nationwide? Will the debate be driven by fact or emotion? In these politically volatile times, there is no way to know for sure, which makes it critically important to stay informed at all times. If you are affected by a disability, work in an industry with potential for disabling injury, or simply care about the fate of people who suffer from job-related disabilities, you'll want to track this debate carefully and let your representatives know what you think!