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Is SSD 'hidden welfare'? No, that's another myth, say researchers

Last month, National Public Radio presented an enormous, six-part series on Social Security disability. The series attempted, in part, to explain the rising number of disability claims as an element of a "hidden welfare" system that has arisen due to desperate economic conditions and the Welfare reforms passed during the Clinton administration. While well-meaning, the series painted a picture of people who, locked out of federal Welfare programs by lifetime benefit limitations and unable to find jobs, game the system to unfairly obtain Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income.

It's true that, whenever cash benefits are available, there are those who will cheat to get them. However, the NPR series made it sound as if the Social Security disability system is plagued with people claiming false disabilities, and with unethical doctors, lawyers and judges willing to help them get those benefits simply because they have few or no real prospects for employment.

How fair was that NPR series? It has its good points, but actual research demonstrates that the picture it paints is quite false. This week, the Los Angeles Times published its own report in which it presents the actual facts -- which largely contradict the conclusions NPR drew from individual anecdotes from SSD recipients.

The LA Times report delved into numbers from the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Census Bureau, and considered information from researchers with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, an economic policy think tank, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a policy group focused on issues affecting people with low- and moderate-incomes. It also consulted with Social Security disability researchers at MIT and the University of Maryland, among others.

While a blog post doesn't give us the space to discuss all of the Times' findings, here are a few key points:

  • SSDI requires medical evidence of a disability expected to permanently keep the applicant from meaningful work, plus a history of long-term, sustained work. Only about 41 percent of applications are ever approved.

  • Despite claims that disabilities such ADHD are swelling the number of children on SSI, the percentage of children receiving these benefits has been essentially stable for the past two decades.

  • The increasing number of applicants tracks closely with the aging workforce, because aging contributes to disability risk. Those in their 50s are about twice as likely to become disabled as those in their 40s, and the risk doubles again at age 60.

Before you conclude that Social Security disability recipients are the new "Welfare queens," read the entire piece in the Times by clicking the link below.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Does Congress have the heart to avert disability crisis?" Michael Hiltzik, April 2, 2013

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