Quiz time: what do the letters “SS” stand for in SSDI?
If your answer is “Social Security,” congratulations. You know that Social Security Disability Insurance is part of Social Security. That seems obvious, but the Trump administration wants you to think otherwise.
“If you ask 999 people out of 1,000, (they) would tell you that Social Security disability is not part of Social Security,” Mick Mulvaney, the administration’s budget director, said in May at a press briefing on its 2018 spending plan. “It’s old-age retirement that they think of when they think of Social Security.”
Mulvaney was explaining a proposed $72 billion spending cut in disability benefits and Supplemental Security Income, to be spread over 10 years. The likely intent was to wriggle away from President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge not to cut Social Security.
Mulvaney does have a point – most people do think of retirement when they think of Social Security, due to the universality of retirement benefits. But despite his claims on popular perceptions of Social Security, Mulvaney’s attempt to separate SSDI from Social Security is dangerous and could have a very corrosive effect.
Hacking away at the disability insurance program is an attack on the very idea of social insurance. The fundamental aim of Social Security is to protect against the risk of lost income from work, whether from retirement, disability or the death of a family breadwinner.
Disability insurance was added to the program during the Eisenhower era. Workers and employers alike contribute to the disability insurance fund through their payroll tax contributions. (Currently, 2.37 percent of the total 12.4 percent payroll tax goes into the disability fund, split evenly between workers and employers.)
Workers qualify for benefits by working the equivalent of at least 10 years – just as they do for Social Security and Medicare, although the number of work credits required for disability are adjusted for age to accommodate younger workers.
So disability protection is an earned benefit, no different than retirement coverage. But SSDI often is attacked as though it were a government handout.
Indeed, the administration’s proposed cuts come alongside appalling cuts to other programs that assist the vulnerable, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Republican opponents of SSDI often argue that disability spending is out of control, and that more beneficiaries must return to the workforce. “It’s the fastest-growing program,” Mulvaney said during one television interview about the budget. “It grew tremendously under President Obama. It’s a very wasteful program, and we want to try and fix that.” Hence the Trump budget plan forecasts cutting spending by tightening program eligibility rules.