Social Security and You: The Problems With Running a Disability Program
Several readers recently sent me copies of a news story that appeared in papers around the country. The author of that piece criticized the Social Security Administration for not updating a listing of jobs that benefit applicants might be able to do instead of going on the government dole collecting disability benefits. (The law says that a person must be unable to do any kind of work to be eligible for such payments.)
I'm sure those job listings will eventually be updated, but here is a point I need to make. I worked for the Social Security Administration for 32 years, and in almost every one of those years, Congress passed laws designed to "fix" the disability program. Also, in each and every one of those years, there were internal SSA studies and commissions that resulted in proposals also intended to make the disability process more fair, more streamlined and at the same time, less prone to fraud and abuse.
So, what's going on with that? Why is the disability program apparently always under scrutiny and constantly subject to congressional and administrative and media meddling? The answer to that question is what this column is all about.
Here is the bottom line: any disability program is an absolute mess to manage. And the Social Security disability system is even more prone to administrative nightmares because it is, by far, the biggest such program in the country.
And why is a disability program such a mess? Because it is so subjective. For example, compare it to the Social Security retirement program. The eligibility rules for retirement are relatively cut and dried. You contact the SSA, show them a birth certificate to prove you are old enough for benefits, answer a few questions and meet a few other eligibility requirements, and you qualify for benefits. No muss, no fuss.
But it's a completely different story for the disability program, and that's because it is hard to get people to agree on the answer to this question: How disabled does someone have to be to get disability benefits? One person's disabling condition is another person's relatively minor inconvenience. Think of this in practical day-to-day terms to which anyone can relate. We all know fellow workers who call in sick because they have a case of the sniffles. On the other hand, we also know of co-workers who will show up at the workplace even though they look like they are knocking on death's door! In other words, we all have different interpretations of what should keep a person from being able to work.
Here is another example. I've got a neighbor who has a 35-year-old son with multiple sclerosis. The son uses a wheelchair and needs other forms of help. Yet, he still goes to work every day at a local Target store. At the same time, I've encountered thousands of people over the years who claim to be disabled because they have a bad back or sore knees. Is my neighbor's son "disabled"? How about the guy with the bad back?
The government tries to make the Social Security disability program as objective as possible with a handbook full of regulations to help SSA adjudicators decide who is legally disabled and who isn't. Teams of medical professionals are also involved in the process.
Yet, it always comes down to the fact that some government bureaucrat, after reviewing the medical evidence, consulting the professionals and employing the guidelines, will have to make a subjective decision about a person's eligibility for disability benefits.
Let's take that guy with the bad back. I'll call him Frank. And we'll say that Frank actually has some painful spinal damage. How severe should it be to qualify for disability? He had a job that required heavy lifting. He is certainly too disabled to do that kind of work anymore. But perhaps there are other less-strenuous jobs Frank can be trained to do. Should he qualify for Social Security disability if he can do those other jobs? (The media report I began this column with was alleging this listing of potential jobs Frank might be able to do is outdated.)
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