The media have spent a great deal of time in the last few years highlighting the money paid out to people on Social Security disability. Associated Press was on the job again yesterday with an article that highlighted four administrative judges employed by the Social Security Administration who approve almost all the cases that are brought to them. There are many important facts that are left out of this piece.
First, these judges were deliberately selected by the House Oversight Committee because they were outliers who approve a high percentage of the cases brought to them. The Social Security Administration has almost 1400 administrative judges. Undoubtedly many are also outliers on the other side, denying most of the cases brought to them. A serious news story would have pointed out that these judges are atypical.
The piece was also misleading in telling readers:
"Lifetime benefits average about $300,000, according to the report, so Krafsur's [one of the four judges] cases will lead to nearly $1.8 billion in benefits."
The average disability benefit is roughly $1,150 a month. If the average period for collecting benefits is 15 years (almost certainly an overstatement, since most beneficiaries first become eligible in their 50s), this would imply benefits of $207,000. It is possible that the $300,000 includes Medicare payments. (Disability beneficiaries are eligible for Medicare after two years.)
If so, counting these benefits is seriously misleading for several reasons. First, Medicare is paid out of a separate fund so its does not affect the solvency of the Disability program. Also, most of these people would have low incomes and therefore be eligible for Medicaid, even if they were turned down for disability. This means there is little or no net cost to taxpayers from having them receive Medicare. Finally, most people would likely see this number and think beneficiaries are seeing $300,000 in cash.
It would have been worth pointing out that just over one-third of applicants for disability get approved. The people who appeal their initial denial to a disability judge likely exclude most of the marginal cases, (it takes time and generally lawyers' fees to file an appeal), so it would not be surprising that a high percentage will be approved. A recent study by the University of Michigan examined the work experience of marginal applicants who were denied disability by administrative judges. Of this group, which comprised 25 percent of all applicants, it found that only 28 percent of these people were employed two years after being turned down. Even among this group (7 percent of all applicants)average earnings was only half of what it had been before they had applied for disability. That suggests that the vast majority of this marginal group really are experiencing difficulty in working.
While the piece notes the sharp rise in the share of the workforce on disability it would have been useful to point out that the main reason is the aging of the baby boom cohort into the prime years for receiving disability and the increase in the age for receiving full Social Security benefits from 65 to 66. It would also have been worth noting that the United States ranks near the bottom of wealthy countries in the share of GDP going to disability benefits. Disability benefits comes to 0.9 percent of GDP in the United States, by comparison Germany pays out 1.7 percent of GDP ($290 billion a year in the U.S.) for disability benefits.
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