America's $124 Billion Secret Welfare Program

Social Security Disabilty Abuse

While disability under Social Security is an excellent disability insurance program, it is seen by some as a welfare program. While abuse seems higher than desirable, it is doubtful that it is operated as a welfare program intentionally. It just works out that way, out of necessity and compassion.

That abuse is occurring is no revelation. It has been known for some time to all but the casual observer that some people were drawing funds when they were not actually disabled.

Disability Insurance: America's $124 Billion Secret Welfare Program

THE ATLANTIC - The number of former workers enrolled in the Social Security disability program has more than doubled in the last two decades, and the reasons why have little to do with the health of our workforce.

Social Security's disability insurance program, which over 20 years has quietly morphed into one of the largest, yet least talked about, pieces of the social safety net. Since the early 1990s, the number of former workers receiving payments under it has more than doubled to about 8.5 million, as shown in Planet Money's graph below. More than five percent of all eligible adults are now on the rolls, up from around 3 percent twenty years ago. Add in children and spouses who also get checks, and the grand tally comes to 11.5 million.

As of 2010, its monthly cash payments accounted for nearly one out of every five Social Security dollars spent, or about $124 billion. In 1988, by comparison, it accounted for just one out of eight Social Security dollars. Because disabled workers qualify for Medicare, they also added $59 billion to the government's healthcare tab.

Are disabilities just becoming more common? According to economists such as MIT's David Autor, the evidence says no. The workforce is indeed getting older, and thus more ailment prone. But Americans over 50, who make up most disability cases, report much better health today than in the 1980s. And demographers have found that the percentage of Americans older than 65 suffering from a chronic disability has fallen drastically since then.

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This phenomenon is not characteristic of just this one program. It also includes retraining, unemployment, and other similar well-meant programs designed to aid people who are out of work. I do give preference to "well-meant" as opposed to others that sometimes seem to be meant for, and tolerated as, a means to keep the rabble from marching on the capital with pitch forks. However, it is always better to do real good rather than "pretend good".

There is nothing inherently wrong with the Social Security Disability program as an insurance program. The problem is how we deal with other policies, such as taxation and tariffs, that affect employment both directly or indirectly. Any program that pays people as they sit idly by is bound to be abused unless extreme culling measures are used. However if that takes place, the program loses its intention.

It is not the end of the economic world that some folks are drawing compensation they are not entitled to. What is really at issue here is that they are having to lie and cheat to claim benefits and that degrades them. It also really makes other observers mad.

A better situation would be:

  1. Manipulate the retirement age so that younger workers have a chance at employment and higher wages when jobs are scarce, and then raise the retirement age when labor is tight. This doesn't seem fair, but fairness is not really the point. Stability is the point.

  2. Society, through its government, should be the employer of last resort instead of making welfare transfer payments in lieu of work -- with the exception of the truly disabled, of course. This is why conservatives destroying the post office is not a very robust idea. The idea that the post office must make a profit is just as silly a notion as charging for the use of the street to your house or the expressway around your town or the parking spots at your town square.

  3. Provide free higher education for any that desire it. Nothing breeds discontent like no access to opportunity. The money we spend on the justice system, incarceration, jails, courts, and excess criminalization (like marijuana possession) would easily pay for education for all.


About the Author

jenningsRobert Jennings is co-publisher of with his wife Marie T Russell. InnerSelf is dedicated to sharing information that allows people to make educated and insightful choices in their personal life, for the good of the commons, and for the well-being of the planet. InnerSelf Magazine is in its 30+year of publication in either print (1984-1995) or online as Please support our work.

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