Cutting Social Security Benefits Can Backfire Horribly

Posted January 17, 2020 by Carlie Allen

In the early 1980s, the Ronald Reagan administration terminated benefits for thousands of disabled people who were supposedly loafing on Social Security Disability Insurance instead of getting a job. The cuts sparked a public outcry, state government protests, serious congressional pushback and court rulings restoring people’s benefits.

Now the Donald Trump administration is pursuing changes that disability advocates say could repeat those same mistakes. In a proposed regulation, the Social Security Administration said in November that to “maintain appropriate stewardship of the disability program” it wants to do more frequent reviews checking that program enrollees are still disabled.

The administration is also reportedly considering a separate rule that would tighten initial eligibility standards for disability benefits. Both moves are part of the president’s general crackdown on programs that benefit poor people.

More than 8 million Americans receive Social Security Disability Insurance, for which they must prove to the government that they suffer from a severe disability that won’t go away within a year. Even after they’ve been awarded benefits, from time to time most recipients have to prove that they’re still unable to work in order to continue receiving benefits. How often reviews happen depends on the severity of a person’s impairments.

The Trump administration wants to make those “continuing disability reviews” (CDR’s) more frequent, arguing that the current system fails to account for medical improvement among some recipients. And it said it would look particularly closely at disability claimants awarded benefits partly because their age and educational attainment made them less likely to be able to find work.

Increasing the number of disability reviews also triggered the Reagan-era debacle. As part of a long-running moral panic over supposedly undeserving Americans getting welfare, Congress in 1980 required the Social Security Administration to review nonpermanent disability claims every three years. Reagan loved to bash welfare, and his administration implemented the law with gusto. Instead of doing just 150,000 reviews each year, as had been done previously, the administration aimed for half a million.

It became a scandal almost immediately, as thousands discovered their benefits were being terminated.

From 1982 through 1984, the Reagan administration reviewed about 1.2 million cases and sent out 490,000 termination notices, according to the Congressional Research Service. Approximately 200,000 of those terminations were reversed on appeal.

Class action lawsuits revealed what a federal judge described as an illegal “covert policy” to revoke benefits from people who’d been granted enrollment in part because of mental impairments, rather than solely because of physical disabilities. Officials believed such people ought to be able to do unskilled work.

Amid the uproar, the Reagan administration declared a moratorium on continuing disability reviews in 1984, and that year Congress passed a law disallowing terminations without substantial improvement in whatever medical condition had led to the initial award of benefits.

The Trump proposal would result in 2.6 million more reviews over a decade, at a cost of $1.8 billion ― which the administration said would save $2.6 billion by terminating benefits for an unspecified number of SSDI and Supplemental Security Income beneficiaries.

With its proposals to cut food benefits, the Trump administration has insisted that former recipients will be better off if they’re forced to go get jobs. But with the disability proposal, the administration admitted it “cannot currently quantify” how many might find work. Past research on incomes of former disability recipients paints a somewhat grim picture, with low earnings and high poverty rates.

The draft regulation would not affect initial eligibility for disability benefits, but would subject some claimants to review every two years if the administration believes they are “likely” to see medical improvement. The rule specifies that certain cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma, would be considered likely to improve, as well as speech and anxiety disorders.

Other claimants would be included in the “improvement likely” category if they had been awarded benefits not solely because of their disability, but also because of factors such as age, education and work experience that affect their ability to find new jobs.

“Unfortunately, what we are seeing in the proposed regulations are similar mistakes made by SSA in the early 1980s,” Lowell Arye, who worked as a staffer on the House Select Committee on Aging in the 1980s, said in a formal comment on the Trump regulation. He said “the targeting of individuals” who won benefits partly because of vocational factors is similar to what the Reagan administration did when it targeted people with mental illness.

If the regulation is finalized ― which could happen later this year ― disability claimants would have far more recourse than they did in the 1980s, said Barbara Silverstone, director of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, largely because of the safeguards Congress enacted in 1984.

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By: Joyce Trudeau of Premier Disability Services, LLC®