Last year, almost 8 million Americans depended on Social Security Disability benefits as their sole source of income. These people paid into the system, and when Social Security determined that they were too disabled by an illness or injury to work at any job, they were awarded benefits. As Congress considers changes to Social Security to help reduce the deficit, it needs to take into consideration the fate of these constituents.
For the past two years, there have been no cost-of-living increases to Social Security Disability due to the formula used to calculate such increases. This doesn't mean the cost of food, utilities, medical expenses and transportation have not gone up. These recipients are definitely feeling the effects of our tight economy. Certain members of Congress are saying we need to make major changes to the Social Security system for it to survive. Yet data from the Congressional Budget Office shows income and expenses for Social Security leveling off from 2011 going forward.
Some of the proposed changes, such as those drafted by the co-chairmen of President Obama's deficit reduction commission, could even backfire. Increasing the retirement age from 65 to 69 will not work for workers who perform physical labor.
These folks could easily end up needing disability benefits instead of retirement benefits because their bodies simply will not stand up to working until they are 69. The proposal does contain a "hardship" clause, but no one knows yet how this would work. And the suggestion to index Social Security to an even lower inflation rate means that those who are already struggling on what is a minimal income at best will be further marginalized.
People who are collecting disability benefits have already faced two of life's biggest challenges: serious illness or injury; and the inability to provide for themselves and their families. After the Great Depression, our Social Security program was implemented as an "economic stabilizer" to ensure the retired, as well as those who fell on hard times and could no longer work, could buy food and pay rent. In other words, they could still participate in our economic system of supply and demand for goods and services.
Clearly we need to make changes to pay off the deficit so that we are not passing it on to future generations. But we should not be trying to do this by further eroding the incomes of the recipients of Social Security Disability, who are already living on the minimum and who paid into the system.
Those who are disabled and can no longer work should be able to collect their promised benefits. When it comes to balancing the budget and reducing the deficit, there are other options that can be considered -- options that won't impact people who are already struggling to get by.
Regina Walker is an attorney with Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys at Law, which represents Social Security Disability claimants.