Last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that roughly 36,000 individuals since January 2013 have received $1.29 billion in potentially improper cash disability insurance payments.
Disability enrollments have exploded in recent years. Since 2009, 5.9 million people have been added to the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, a 23% jump over the last five years. Today, 14 million Americans receive some form of disability check, costing taxpayers an estimated $260 billion (including healthcare costs) annually–over three times as much as taxpayers spend funding food stamps.
Skyrocketing disability enrollments are fiscally unsustainable, say federal officials. According to the Congressional Budget Office, since 2009, the disability program has spent more money than it collected in payroll taxes every single year. The Washington Post reports the disability trust fund will run out of money in 2016.
Some analysts point to the aging baby boomer population as a contributing factor to the increase, but most agree the dour economy is largely to blame. “The disability program is increasingly becoming a long-term unemployment program,” Cornell University professor Richard Burkhauser told the Post. “We see a lot of it now because of the effects of the recession.”
The program’s eligibility requirements have grown increasingly hazy. In the past, those who qualified for benefits suffered serious bodily impairment. Today, over half of those drawing disability claim to suffer from musculoskeletal disorders, like back pain, or mental impairments.
The Post profiled a former Maine millworker named Eugene LaPorte who was laid off in 2011. He had asthma, diabetes, and a heart attack two years before his employer let him go. He, like one out of every 12 adults in this county, now draws a government disability check. But he says he would rather be working instead of riding his Harley Davidson motorcycle.
“These days, LaPorte spends a lot of his free time riding his Harley Davidson motorcycle to bike rallies around New England,” reports the Post. “He enjoys the freedom, but he said he would prefer to be working than collecting a government check. ‘I wanted to go to work,’ he said. ‘Fifty-eight is a ridiculous age to retire.'”
Still, many with disabilities decide not to opt out of the workforce, including individuals with severe disabilities. Richie Parker was born with no arms. For eight years, Parker has worked as an engineer at Hendrick Motorsports, the winningest organization in NASCAR. He does his computer designs the same way he drives himself to work: with his feet.
“Every step of the way in life there have been people that said I can’t do things,” says Parker. “They said that I couldn’t ride a bicycle. There have been people that said I couldn’t live on my own, couldn’t get a good job and support myself, or I couldn’t go to college and graduate. I don’t listen too much to people when they tell me I can’t do something. There’s not a whole lot that’s going to stand in my way.”
Parker says he had two supportive parents fostering his sense of independence and self-sufficiency. However, this is not always the case. As progressive New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff reported, numerous parents in Appalachian hill country are taking their children out of literacy classes in order to bag a $689 monthly Supplemental Security Income (S.S.I) check that the child will receive at least until the age of 18 years of age.
Indeed, 8% of all low-income children in America are now enrolled in S.S.I. as disabled. The cost to taxpayers: $9 billion a year. Studies also show that nearly two-thirds will move into adult disability at the age of 18, says Kristoff.
“This is painful for a liberal to admit,” wrote Kristoff, “but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency.”
A report by the Obama White House concluded that “workers on SSDI [Social Security Disability Insurance] rarely return to the labor force.”