February 17, 2020
The “need” to strip benefits from poor and working people to help maintain the lifestyles of the Mar-a-Lago set is one of the fundamental principles of Donald Trump and the Republican Party. The rich always “need” more tax cuts, so when budget deficits get in the way, those at the middle and bottom are just going to have to sacrifice.
This is the reasoning behind the large budget cuts that the president has proposed for Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps in his most recent budget proposal.
However, the rule changes and proposed cuts to the disability programs that Trump is now pushing will actually provide little room for future tax cuts for his rich friends. The cost of the additional bureaucracy needed to administer these changes is projected to eat up most of the savings from lower benefits. This means Trump wants to inflict considerable pain on the disabled community just because he can.
The basic story is that Trump is proposing to require that people receiving government disability payments have their status reviewed with greater frequency. He is also proposing raising the standards to qualify for disability. This will lead to fewer people collecting benefits.
By the administration’s own projections, these changes will save $2.6 billion in benefit payments over the next decade. The changes will lead to 2.6 million additional reviews over this period, costing the government $1.8 billion.
This leads to a net projected savings of $0.8 billion over the decade, or $80 million a year. That comes to less than 0.002 percent of projected federal spending. It is not too much more than what taxpayers spend each year on Trump’s golfing vacations. So, we are not talking about real savings in terms of the federal budget.
However, the additional reviews and the risk of being wrongly deprived of benefits are a big deal to the disabled people who will confront them. Before getting into more detail, there are two important points to be made about the benefits at stake.
First, benefits are not especially generous now. The average Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefit is less than $1,300 a month. The average Supplemental Security Income benefit (SSI) is less than $700 a month.
SSI benefits are income-based. Only low-income families are eligible. However, benefits paid out through SSDI, by far the larger of the two programs, are based on a person’s work history. These benefits are insurance that workers have paid for through a 2.4 percent payroll tax. Their benefits depend on their past earnings.
This is an important point. Denying disability benefits to people who have earned them is like an insurer denying the claim of someone whose house has burned down. It is effectively breaking a contract, the one area of business where everyone agrees that Trump excels.
To see concretely what Trump’s proposed changes will mean, imagine a 60-year-old truck driver or autoworker who badly hurt their back on the job. This person likely will not be able to work any longer at the physically demanding job they previously held. However, they may not be totally disabled.
It is possible they could work at a less demanding job with much lower pay, for example, working part-time in a convenience store. It is not clear whether this person would have gotten disability under the current rules. They would be considerably less likely under the Trump rules.
In addition to the disability not being totally debilitating, Trump’s rules would also not take age into account. Previously, the claim of this 60-year-old would be treated somewhat more leniently than a 40-year-old in the same condition.
There are two reasons for considering age in determining disability. First, people’s health generally gets worse as they age. If someone is marginally disabled at age 60, they are likely to be in worse condition at age 61.
The other reason that age is taken into account is that the disability award costs less for an older worker. They can only collect disability until they reach the normal retirement age of 67. Furthermore, they can start collecting early Social Security benefits at age 62, so the additional cost of paying a worker disability benefits rather than Social Security benefits will be limited.
In addition to tightening the benefits, increasing reviews are likely to be a serious burden for many people on disability. People will risk losing much or all of their income if a form is filled out improperly or late, or if the Social Security Administration misplaces it.
Ironically, there is little dispute about the circumstances of the people who are likely to lose benefits. A recent study looked at marginal disability cases — those in categories most likely to be denied benefits. Just over a quarter of those denied benefits were working two years after their denial. Furthermore, the average pay of those working was close to 40 percent less than it had been before they were denied benefits. This means that even this quarter of those denied benefits who were able to work faced serious problems performing a job.
In short, Trump’s plan is not about saving taxpayers large sums by cracking down on cheats. It is about enlarging the bureaucracy to deny disabled workers the benefits they paid for. What could be more Trumpian?