Social Security Disability Benefits In Danger

Social Security has long had programs to help ease disabled people on its benefits rolls back toard employment. How is it faring in today’s challenging economy and job market?

“Programs intended to steer people with more moderate disabilities back into jobs have managed to take only a small sliver of beneficiaries off the Social Security rolls. Yet, at a time when employers are struggling to create spots for the 13.5 million people actively looking for jobs, or keeping them working in the first place — is becoming increasingly important to the nation’s fiscal health…

“For the last five years, Social Security has paid out more in benefits to disabled workers than it has taken in from payroll taxes. Government actuaries forecast that the disability trust fund will run out of money by 2018…along with monthly checks that are based on the worker’s earnings history, beneficiaries generally qualify for Medicare — otherwise reserved for those over 65 — two years after being admitted to the disability rolls. There are reasons for the increase in beneficiaries.” Baby boomers are hitting the age when health starts to deteriorate, and there are more mental illnesses being claimed as disabling.

“About 8.2 million people collected disabled worker benefits totaling $115 billion last year, up from 5 million a decade earlier. About one in 21 Americans from age 25 to 64 receive the benefit, according to an analysis of Social Security data by Prof. Mark G. Duggan, an economist at the University of Maryland.

In fact, Social Security offers disability beneficiaries some incentive to ease back into the work force. For nine months after starting a job, they can earn any amount without threatening their benefits. For another three years, if their income falls below $1,000 a month, they can immediately receive full benefits again. And they can keep Medicare coverage for eight and a half years after going back to work, something few beneficiaries may realize.

In 1999, Congress passed a law authorizing the Ticket to Work program, which offers beneficiaries practical help with a job search. Social Security also waives medical reviews for those who participate.

A Social Security spokesman noted that some other beneficiaries had returned to work without using its Ticket to Work program. In 2009, 32,445 recipients left the benefit rolls because they were earning enough in jobs.

“We could make this program exponentially more successful and it wouldn’t be enough to dramatically improve the solvency picture,” said Michael J. Astrue, the commissioner of Social Security. “You do it because work — for people who can work — gives them dignity and improves their economic condition.”

So far, the program has had little success. Out of 12.5 million disabled workers and those who receive benefits for the disabled poor, only 13,656 returned to work over the last two and a half years, with less than a third of them earning enough to drop the benefits.

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