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Editorial: Disability system not a jobs program substitute

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The number of former workers receiving Social Security disability payments has increased dramatically over the past decade – by 55 percent nationally and almost 66 percent in New Mexico – as a program designed as a safety net for those people unable to work has morphed into a long-term unemployment insurance program.

As of December 2011, 60,803 New Mexicans were receiving Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, compared to 35,589 in December 2002. For the same period, SSDI recipients nationally numbered 8,575,544, up from 5,543,981.

The Social Security Administration’s May 2013 snapshot shows about 10.9 million workers and their dependents getting disability checks. And that does not include those who receive Supplemental Security Income, which is not linked to a person’s work history.

There are various factors at work. They include the Great Recession, aging Baby Boomers, more women meeting the program’s work history standards, and the 1980s liberalization of eligibility criteria making it easier to make a case for medical and mental disabilities.

The Social Security Disability Benefits Reform Act of 1984 put more emphasis on an applicant’s own assessment of their condition and less on the Social Security Administration’s determination. A National Bureau of Economic Research report says those changes increased the likelihood of more people with musculoskeletal conditions and pain and those with mental disorders qualifying. And they did.

Beyond the monthly payments, which average about $1,100, disability recipients may also qualify for other government benefits, like Medicare after a waiting period and/or food stamps, depending upon their remaining household income.

Somebody has to work to pay for all this.

There are millions of deserving people with legitimate and serious disabilities who receive help from the government safety net. And they should. But for some people the easier SSDI entry poses an attractive alternative to working. With decent-paying jobs hard to find, who wants to fight for a minimum-wage gig if you have a minor condition and can get a check to stay home? Yet SSDI never was meant to be a job-replacement program.

Social Security trustees have said Disabilities Insurance Trust Fund reserves will be depleted in 2016, when payments could be reduced by about 20 percent. It is incumbent on Congress – and N.M.’s delegation – to re-evaluate and corral this runaway program. At this rate of growth, it is not sustainable.

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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