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Editorial: S.S. disabilities program heading for train wreck

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A mushrooming Social Security disability program appears headed down the track to insolvency.

Currently about 10.9 million people are receiving disability checks, according to the Social Security Administration. The Congressional Budget Office reports that since 1970 the number of disabled workers receiving benefits has increased nearly sixfold. Last year about 3.2 million people applied for benefits, up 25 percent in the last decade.

Among likely factors driving the boom in applications are high unemployment, a struggling economy and aging baby boomers with chronic health issues. But other factors may be at play. Some people with minor disabilities who could work if they had a job or those who lost their jobs and gave up looking may have decided to try to access this part of the government safety net.

Now, a lawsuit filed by a union representing disability administrative law judges suggests another factor. It claims the judges, who decide who gets benefits and who doesn’t, are faced with illegal quotas and excessive workloads that make it easier to just approve benefits for people who don’t really qualify.

After all, it isn’t their money. It’s yours, and that of everyone else who pays into the disabilities trust fund — which is expected to run out of money in 2016. That could mean a 21 percent cut in disability benefits is just three years away, according to Social Security trustees.

Denying benefits means tedious documentation defending the action — upwards of 20 pages versus three or so for giving a stamp of approval.

Administration officials say the lawsuit allegations aren’t true, that they are coming from a small group of malcontent judges who just don’t want to do their jobs.

Many beneficiaries are truly disabled and do deserve the aid of the safety net. But disability insurance was never meant to be a source of income between jobs or a permanent stipend for people who don’t want to work and are willing to try to game the system.

In any case, the disabilities program is in trouble and unsustainable. It’s time for Congress to apply more oversight and some brakes to prevent this train from hitting the wall.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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