Census Bureau Busts Myths (Again)

July 20, 2015

You know the myths well, I suppose. Safety net benefits trap recipients in poverty — an assertion cagily repeated by the House Agriculture Committee Chairman just a few weeks ago. They’re a spider web, Presidential candidate Jeb Bush opines.

A new Census Bureau report tells us otherwise. About a third of the people who participated in one or more of our major safety net programs did so for a year or less during a recent four-year period that includes part of the Great Recession.

About the Report

The Census report updates a very similar program participation report issued about three years ago. Both use an ongoing survey of a sample of American households. So it’s possible to track entries into and exits from major safety net programs over time.

The report focuses on people who benefited from any of six programs that limited eligibility based, at least in part, on income — Medicaid, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program, SNAP (the food stamp program), SSI (Supplemental Security Income), housing assistance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, lumped together with dwindling general assistance programs.

Many, many numbers in the report — some in the text, even more in graphs. It’s hard — for me, at least — to tease out what they tell us from a policy perspective. I’ve nevertheless taken a crack at it, as follows.

Not Much Program Growth

Participation rates in the six programs rose somewhat from 2009 to 2011, but then leveled off. In 2012, slightly more than one in five people (21.3%) participated in at least one.

Medicaid had the highest average monthly participation rate, increasing from 13.9% in 2009 to 15.3% in 2012. States that chose to expand their Medicaid programs presumably accounts for this.

On the other hand, the participation rate for housing assistance remained basically flat, at 4.2%. And the rate for TANF/General assistance ticked down to a paltry 1% in 2012. Not much of a safety net there for the poorest among us.

Deterrents to Work

The new Census figures don’t deliver a clear rebuttal to the claims that safety net programs discourage beneficiaries from working. They do, however, tell us a few relevant things.

First and foremost, by far and away the high percent of beneficiaries are under 18 — most presumably too young to work. In an average month during 2012, slightly over 39% of safety net beneficiaries were in this age group. That’s well over double the participation rate for working-age adults.

Among them, 33.5% of those who were unemployed participated in at least one safety net program during the four-year period. This is more than 10% higher than the rate for their peers who weren’t counted as part of the labor force because they were neither working nor actively seeking work.

Hard to Live on Those Benefits

Anyone who thinks the safety net is a comfortable hammock ought to take a look at the Census Bureau’s findings on benefits. During the four-year period, the median benefit for all six programs was $404 a month, adjusted for inflation.

The median is skewed upward by SSI benefits, with a median of $698 a month — about 75% of the federal poverty line for a single person.

Other major cash and near-cash benefits drag the overall median down. TANF/GA participants received a median of $321 a month.

Cycling In and Out

Long about the time the Census Bureau issued its report, Vox published a post by a working woman who’s angry as all get out because people look down on her for participating in SNAP.

She says, among other things, that she doesn’t “do it all the time” — only when she can’t pay her bills and also buy food for her family. She’s never participated for more than 18 months at a stretch.

We can’t see this sort of cycling in and out in the figures the Bureau reports. But we do see something that suggests it — and more clearly, the cycling out part.

Fewer than half the people who participated in any of the safety net programs did so for more than three of the four years the report covers. Variation there, depending on program — from 49.4% for housing assistance to 9.8% for TANF/GA.

At the same time, TANF/GA racked up by far and a way the highest percent participating for no more than a year. This doesn’t, of course, mean that states’ TANF program do a great job at moving poor parents from welfare to work that pays enough to support them and their children.

It could indicate how very low some states set their income cut-offs for continuing eligibility and/or their success at cutting their caseloads by other means, e.g., with sanctions that effectively bump families out of their programs or extremely short time limits, a strategy some Red states have adopted.

It surely does, however, suggest that families don’t linger in TANF because those benefits afford them such a comfortable hammock. Or snare them in “perpetual dependence” because they’d lose the cash and have to pay higher taxes if they moved up the income ladder. (Quoting Bush again here.)

So far as SNAP is concerned, less than a third (30.4%) of those who received them did so for more than a year — whether for 12 months running or some months at one point, some months later we can’t tell.

Another 38.6% participated for three to four years. This could indicate, among other things, under-employment — not failures to work by those who could be expected to, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says.

We know, from other sources, that it indicates rock-bottom earnings by fast-food workers and many in the retail sales sector.

Will any of this make a difference to policymakers who evince such concern about how our safety net programs discourage work — and are growing by unsustainable leaps and bounds? A rhetorical question. Yet the rest of us — some policymakers included — can come to a better understanding of how dynamic “the dynamics of economic well-being” in this country are, thanks to the Census analysis.


More Ways Public Programs Could Improve Life for Low-Income Seniors

June 4, 2015

Here, as promised, are the remaining three steps that Kevin Prindiville, the Executive Director of Justice in Aging advocates to fight senior poverty — and though he doesn’t say so, the hardships of those who’ll remain poor or nearly so.

Increase Assistance With Healthcare Costs

Rising healthcare costs are “one of the drivers of seniors’ economic vulnerability,” Prindiville says. We can go a step further.

Medical out-of-pocket costs are the main reason the senior poverty rate rises when the Census Bureau uses its Supplemental Poverty Measure, instead of the official measure. Factoring them out would produce a 6.3% drop in the SPM senior poverty rate — about 2.8 million fewer poor seniors.

Prindiville advocates reducing or altogether eliminating medical out-of-pockets for low-income seniors. He also urges unspecified expansions of programs designed to help poor and near-poor seniors afford health care — Medicaid, Medicare Savings Programs and the low-income subsidy for Medicare Part D.

Basically, the savings programs help low-income individuals and married couples pay for Medicare premiums — both Part A (hospital costs) and Part B (out-patient costs) for the lowest-income group. The program for these Qualified Medicare Beneficiaries also helps them pay those out-of-pockets.

The subsidy program pays for either the full or partial costs of the optional Part D insurance program, which generally covers some share of prescription drug costs. Here too, how much help beneficiaries get depends on their income level.

Prindiville again stresses the need to protect these programs from cost-shifting proposals. I earlier suggested that he was referring to Republicans’ premium support, a.k.a voucher, programs for Medicare.

But a recent Part D reform needs protection as well, since Republicans seem set on repealing the Affordable Care Act. That would reopen the so-called donut hole, which the ACA has shrunk and will ultimately close.

More seniors would again have to pay the full costs of prescription drugs that exceed a fairly low maximum — just $2,830 in 2010, when the ACA was passed.

And they’d have to continue paying those costs till they reach another maximum — more than $6,000 by 2020, according to Families USA, which optimistically forecast, in 2012, that the ACA will stay in place.

Provide Federal Support for the Long-Term Care Safety Net

Seniors, as well as younger people with severe disabilities can face formidable costs for in-home help with daily activities, e.g., bathing, dressing, housework, and for community-based services like transportation.

Medicaid covers some long-term care costs for some beneficiaries — for whom and how sufficient depends on their state’s policies. A patchwork then — and no safety net at all for seniors with more than minimal incomes and assets.

We’re often advised to take out long-term care insurance, which will partially defray the costs of services in our homes and communities or, when they won’t suffice, residence in a nursing home or assisted living facility.

I have long-term care insurance. Let me tell you, it’s not cheap, especially if you don’t buy in while you’re young and spry. My annual premium is well over twice the average monthly Social Security benefit for retirees.

The ACA attempted to address this problem and the related low-coverage problem by creating a voluntary long-term care insurance program structured somewhat like Social Security. But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concluded that the program couldn’t, as intended, pay for itself.

So HHS suspended it. And Congress subsequently repealed it. We’re thus back to square one — a long-term care safety net for some seniors, inordinate costs and/or burdens on younger family members for the rest.

Prindiville launches a preemptive strike against what might surface next. Proposals that would instead rely on seniors, including the poor and potentially poor, to save more for their long-term care needs are “simply unrealistic,” he says.

So he advocates strengthening and expanding public programs to meet long-term care needs, especially through services that enable seniors to age in place — or at the very least, in their communities. Specifics yet to come, I suppose. But we see glimmers in the last of his five steps.

Reauthorize the Older Americans Act

OAA is one of those programs that provides state and local agencies with grants they can use for a wide range of services — all for seniors, of course, but not necessarily only those in poverty.

We’re perhaps most familiar with Meals on Wheels, but it’s also a source of funding for transportation, legal services, benefits counseling, divers health-related services and more.

Poor seniors rely on OAA-funded services heavily, Prindiville says. For seniors more generally, they’re often the difference between aging in place, as most of us want to do, and living out the rest of our days in a nursing home.

In this respect, one could view them as part of the long-term care safety net — and a cost-effective one too. A semi-private room in a nursing home costs, on average, more than $80,00 a year.

Medicaid picks up all or most of the costs for about 70% of elderly nursing home residents. So there’s a compelling fiscal case, if needed, for the OAA-funded services that complement the in-home and community services that Medicaid funds.

OAA is also one of those programs that Congress should have reauthorized some years ago. A pending bipartisan bill in the Senate would do that. Here’s one step that might actually get taken.

Getting the program adequately funded to meet the needs of our graying population is a whole other matter.

Prindiville’s steps — both protecting what we have and gaining what we don’t — all hinge on persuading our federal policymakers that we view the well-being of seniors as a high priority. Justice in Aging has a petition we can sign. And it does it need more signatures!

 


What Could Lift More Seniors Out of Poverty?

May 26, 2015

The senior poverty rate, according to the official measure, is lower than the rate for the U.S. population as a whole and considerably lower than the child poverty rate. It still translates into about 4.2 million people 65 and older whose incomes fell below the applicable poverty threshold last year — just $11,354 for those who live alone.

The more accurate Supplemental Poverty Measure boosts the senior poverty rate to 14.6% — about 2.3 million more people. But for Social Security benefits, the rate would have been a whopping 52.6%. This is why Social Security is justifiably called the most effective anti-poverty program we have.

Yet we do still have some 6.5 million seniors without enough income to live on. And our poverty prevention measures tend to focus on younger people, as Kevin Prindiville, the Executive Director of Justice in Aging, says.

We’ve got a battery of programs to support education and work-related training, for example. And we’ve got a spectrum of programs to prevent — or at the very least, reduce — poverty among those who find work, especially those with dependent family members. In other words, it’s not just younger people our measures focus on, but working families.

All too late, Prindiville observes, for someone in her 70s or 80s who’s struggling now after a lifetime of low-wage jobs. “We cannot just hold up our hands and say we should have helped … [seniors] 50 years ago, or helped their parents a century ago.”

So what would help them now? Prindiville proposes a five-step plan. He’s managed to get them into a single, compact post. I, as usual, want to flesh out the issues and solutions.

So I’ll deal here with the first two, overlapping steps and leave the remaining three for a followup.

Strengthen the Existing Safety Net and Social Insurance Programs*

Social Security, SSI (Supplemental Security Income), Medicare and Medicaid largely account for the 26% drop in the official senior poverty rate since 1960, Prindiville says. First and foremost, we need to protect them.

None of those proposed Social Security benefits cuts, increased Medicare cost-sharing, e.g., through a voucher plan, or tighter limits on Medicaid coverage, which we could expect to see under the Congressional Republicans’ upcoming block grant proposals.

On the strengthening side, I suppose Prindiville would endorse the latest version of what was originally the Strengthening Social Security Act of 2013.

It would change the benefits formula, providing an average of $65 a month more, and base annual adjustments on an as-yet-to-be-completed Consumer Price Index specifically for the elderly. And unlike the 2013 bill, it would ensure that formerly low-wage workers receive benefits at least big enough to lift them over the poverty line, provided they’d worked at least 10 years.

Of course, like its predecessor, the current bill would also keep the Social Security Trust Fund from coming up short on the money needed to pay full benefits past its projected insolvency in 2033.

Rather than simply scrapping the cap on payroll taxes, as some have proposed, it would trigger taxes on all income — not only wage income — over $250,000.

Improve Supplemental Security Income

Let’s just say proposals to boost Social Security retirement benefits won’t go anywhere in this Congress. So we’ll still have seniors in poverty.

We would anyway because not all seniors used to work — or have spouses that did. And even a work history often won’t yield a benefit anyone can live on unless it spans at least 35 years — this because of the way the Social Security Administration calculates benefits.

For the poorest 2.1 million seniors, SSI provides a safety net. But it’s in need of strengthening too. The maximum benefit — currently $733 a month — is nearly $250 less than would be needed to lift a single person over the poverty line.

No benefits at all for individuals whose savings and other “countable resources” are worth more than $2,000. Nor for couples who’ve more than $3,000. So seniors who’ve saved even a modest amount don’t qualify, though they surely need some stash they can draw on for expenses like Medicare deductibles and co-pays.

And as I’ve written before, the formula for SSI benefits adjusts them downward, based on other income beneficiaries receive. The adjustments kick in only if income exceeds a certain amount, however.

We see a preference for income earned from work — understandable, since it encourages SSI recipients to enter (or reenter) the workforce. For other income, the exclusion — or disregard, as Prindiville calls it — is a mere $20 a month, plus the value of a few other public benefits.

The benefits reduction for other income is dollar-for-dollar — twice as much as for wage income. This isn’t a problem for seniors only. But it’s a big problem for them because they’ll lose as much as they gain from even a piddling increase in Social Security retirement benefits.

Congress hasn’t updated the exclusions since it created the program in 1972. If they’d been adjusted to reflect consumer price increases, the unearned income exclusion would be roughly $112 today.

Bills that died in the last Congress would have addressed these problems, as well as what can be large benefits reductions when a friend of relative helps out with food, housing costs and/or utility bills.

Prindiville says he expects the bills to be introduced again this spring. Nothing thus far, but they probably will be — whether to be better fate remains to be seen. Not holding my breath, folks.

* Prindiville’s top-line recommendation implies that Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare are safety net programs like SSI and Medicaid, but they’re insurance programs because workers pay premiums of a sort, as payroll taxes. I’ve modified the recommendation accordingly because I, among others, feel it’s important to preserve the distinction.


DC TANF Program Short-Changed Core Purposes

April 23, 2015

My last post focused on the “cautionary tale” we can find in how states spent their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds. Now here, as promised, is what we learn about the District of Columbia’s TANF spending.*

The figures are somewhat dated, but they’re still relevant to decisions the DC Council must make as it works on the Mayor’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The District reported $254 million spent on TANF in 2013. Twenty-three percent went for cash assistance. This is a tad higher than the percent reported for 2012. But a family of three was still left at 26% of the federal poverty line. And that’s about where it is now, unless it’s one of the 6,300 families whose benefits have been cut three times already.

They’ll get zero, come October if the Council doesn’t approve the Mayor’s proposal to give them a one-year reprieve. Even if it does, our three-person family will have to get along somehow on $156 a month — roughly 9% of the current FPL.

The Bowser administration justifies the reprieve on the basis of continuing weaknesses in the employment component of the District’s TANF program.

I’ve previously reported the results of an audit that focused on outcomes for the parents facing benefit cut-offs who were actually referred to a contractor for job training and/or help in finding a job. Not encouraging.

But there are two other parts to this story. One is that some parents have had to wait for nearly a year to get those job-related services. This may be in part because the Gray administration froze additional funds for them.

And that’s perhaps because the Department of Human Services didn’t spend all the TANF employment funds in its budget, according to the new director. We certainly see what seems to be under-spending in the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report I’m using here.

Only 15% of TANF funds spent on work-related activities in 2013. And even this was a marked improvement over 2012, when only 7% went for what surely ought to be a top priority for a TANF program.

At the same time, the District spent an unusually low percent of its TANF funds on administration and systems — 2%, as compared to a nationwide 7%.

This matters because the DC Council enacted exemptions from the benefits phase-out for families facing specified hardships, i.e., difficulties, beyond the usual, that parents would face trying to support themselves and their kids.

One, added for the current year, would temporarily stop the time clock for mothers with infants to care for. But the department hasn’t actually granted this exemption. The reason, we’re told, is that it doesn’t have the computer capacity to suspend time-counting for the moms and their babies.

I personally believe that the TANF time limits merit rethinking altogether. DHS itself is looking into a policy that would convert the one-time hardship exemptions for at least some of the designated families and perhaps others into hardship extensions, as federal law has always allowed.

But that’s not even on the drawing board yet. The proposed reprieve is on the Council’s must-decide agenda.

A rollback of the benefits cuts should be too, given what we know about job training waiting lists — and the many months families had to wait for the assessments used to decide what training and/or other services they should get to give them a reasonable chance of success in the workplace.

Beyond these obviously urgent issues, the Council should, I think, take a hard look at how DHS spends its TANF dollars. In 2013, the department spent nearly as much on “non-assistance” as on work activities. What’s in this catch-all category is a mystery. Not the department’s fault, but rather a flaw in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ reporting format.

The new DHS director, unlike her predecessor, shared a break-out of TANF spending with parties interested enough to have attended a recent briefing. Some money here, some there, some someplace else.

I doubt the Council has ever delved into the dispersal of TANF funds. Every dollar may support something worthwhile. But the mechanism is hardly responsible — let alone transparent — budgeting.

And it inevitably diverts funds from cash support for very poor families and from work-related services that can help the parents get to the point where they can pay for their families needs.

These, I think most of us view as core purposes of the TANF program. And both the CBPP report and everything else we know suggests they’re being shorted.

* The TANF funds spent include the District’s federal block grant share and what it claimed as its maintenance of effort, i.e., what it spent of its own funds, plus funds that some nonprofits spent on at least on of the program’s four major goals.

UPDATE: Shortly after I finished this post, I learned of a petition the Fair Budget Coalition has created to drum up Council support for the proposed reprieve. Some on the Council, I’m told, are in need of persuasion. So I hope those of you who are District residents will sign. You’ll find the petition here.


Not Much Spent to Move Families From Welfare to Work

April 20, 2015

Nothing new in the big picture we get from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ update on how states spend their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds. But even the same-old is timely, both because of what’s going on at the federal level and because we’ve got things brewing here in the District of Columbia.

I’m going to split these into two posts because the pressing issues are as different as the proclivities of the majorities in the Capitol building and those of the leaders in the city its dome looms over.

State spending and the federal policy implications first.

As you may know, Republicans on Capitol Hill — and conservatives they listen to — still view TANF as the model anti-poverty program. Time limits, rigid work requirements, lots of state flexibility and an ever-diminishing fraction of the federal budget. What’s not, for them, to like?

So we see another House budget plan that would convert both Medicaid and SNAP (the food stamp program) to block grants somewhat like TANF. States would get a fixed amount of funding, no matter what befalls their economies or drives up needs for other reasons. They would have the flexibility to reduce benefits and/or further restrict eligibility so as to manage with what they get.

States have had such flexibility — and then some — since welfare as we knew it ended in 1996. And they’ve received the same dollar amount in block-grant funds ever since.

Most of us, I think believe TANF should do two main things. It should provide a safety net for poor families with children. And it should help the parents get to the point where they can earn enough to pay for their families’ needs.

Yet states spent, on average, 28% of their TANF funds* on cash assistance in 2013, the latest year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has reported figures for. Even states that spent higher percents provided benefits too low to lift a family of three out of deep poverty, i.e., above 50% of the federal poverty line.

More remarkably, states spent, on average, just 8% of their TANF funds on work activities and supports to make participating in these activities possible, e.g., childcare subsidies, transportation.

Large disparities among states, as you might imagine. Yet every state spent at least some funds on programs not exclusively — or even primarily — for TANF-eligible families, e.g., child welfare services, Earned Income Tax Credit refunds, early childhood education.

However worthy these may be, states seem to be using their flexibility to shore them up at the expense of essential supports and services for TANF families. A dozen states spent at least half their TANF funds this way.

In short, a “cautionary tale,” as CBPP calls this prime example of the block-granting approach to safety-net programs.

* Here and throughout this post, TANF funds include federal block grant funds and what states claimed as their maintenance of effort, i.e. what they spent of their own funds and, in some cases, funds that nonprofits spent on any of the program’s four major goals.


When the Safety Net’s Ripped, the Babies Will Fall … and the Rest of the Family Too

February 17, 2015

In less than eight months, some 6,000 families in the District of Columbia will have no cash income whatever, unless the parents can land jobs PDQ. Most probably won’t because they would have if they could have.

The families I’m referring to have participated in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of 60 or more months. The benefits they’ve received have been, at best, extremely low — $428 a month for a parent with two children.

But their benefits have already been slashed. Our three-person TANF family facing a cut-off now receives $152 a month. Is this what a parent would choose over paying work of any legal kind, assuming s/he’s got someone to care for the kids?

Of course not. The parents who’ve perforce depended on TANF for a long time or recurrently often have what are euphemistically called severe barriers to work, e.g., debilitating physical and/or mental health problems, domestic violence trauma, functional illiteracy.

The District’s TANF program will count time spent receiving services to help overcome such barriers as compliance with its work activity requirements. But it won’t stop the clock ticking toward the cut-off date, except for the relatively few  parents who’ve been shifted out of TANF into a locally-funded program.

Most parents used to be placed in programs designed to get them into the workforce quickly, regardless of their needs and skills. No real attention to whether they could stay in the workforce. Most didn’t, as even the District’s short-term tracking showed.

Then the Department of Human Services revamped the TANF program, providing for individualized assessments and a range of services, including more diverse education and job training options. But time spent in the flawed program still counts toward the 60 months.

And parents who were deemed work-ready, either initially or after some “barrier-removal” services, had to wait for job training because the budget didn’t fund enough slots. Again, the clock kept ticking.

Now Mayor Bowser and the DC Council can let these very poor parents and their children fall into utter destitution or decide that the 60-month limit is, at the very least, too rigid, if not a bad idea altogether.

When they consider the options, as one hopes they will, they should recall that the Council hastily adopted the time limit as part of a budget-gap closing package that then-Chairman Vincent Gray pushed through shortly before he became mayor.

At least some Councilmembers — and we the public — were sold a bill of goods when a less draconian version of the benefits cut-off surfaced in the original gap-closing bill. DHS called it a measure “to more closely align with federal policy.”

But, as I said at the time, nothing in federal policy compels states or the District to cut — let alone end — TANF benefits at the end of five years. The rules only prohibit the use of federal funds to help pay for them.

And not altogether. States and the District may use federal funds to extend benefits for up to 20% of their average monthly caseload based on “hardship or domestic violence.” About 20 states do, in one form or another. The District has taken a pass. It exempts parents from their regular work requirements, but it keeps the clock running. And, as I already said, it set the clock to start when TANF families first enrolled.

So more than 6,100 families lost a portion of their benefits with virtually no warning — and little or no chance to first improve their employment prospects through the new, improved assessment and referral process.

Many would still have faced high barriers — not only those I’ve mentioned, but others that some states count as “hardship,” e.g., the need to care for a chronically ill or severely disabled child.

And then there’s that barrier confronting all local job seekers who don’t have a college degree. Last year, 19% of District residents without a high school diploma couldn’t find work, even part-time. The unemployment rate for those with, but no more was only 1% lower.

So we’ve undoubtedly got TANF parents who’ve been putting in their required work activity hours searching for a job, but to no avail. Yet we’re about to punish them — and their children — further by cutting off their benefits.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s recommendations to the Mayor and Council include a temporary, renewable benefits extension for parents up against the time limit when they can’t find a job that offers enough hours for them to make ends meet.

Some other parents should get extensions too, it says — those who aren’t yet work-ready, for example, and those with the kinds of significant barriers I cited above. It also recommends extensions when families will otherwise suffer “serious hardship,” e.g., homelessness.

One can make lots of arguments, moral and pragmatic, for protecting families from the benefits reductions and cut-offs they face under the current law.

Among the most pressing of both sorts is what’s providing to be an unprecedented homeless family crisis. Stingy TANF benefits help explain it — as, of course, do the even stingier benefits the 60-month families are getting.

But there are still families who’ve managed to stay housed, at least for awhile — by doubling-up (or tripling-up) with other low-income families, for example, or by contributing to the household expenses of a hospitable friend of relative.

These arrangements are by no means ideal for the children, since housing instability of any sort tends to harm them — and in ways that have lasting effects. But they’re better for them than living in the DC General shelter — or on the streets when it’s not cold enough for them to get in.

And they’re better than the cut-offs for the District’s budget too, though I’d like to think our policymakers will take a broader view of their responsibilities when they decide whether to extend a lifeline to at-risk TANF families.

 

 

 

 


House GOP Puts Disabled Workers at Needless Risk

January 26, 2015

Seems when minds are made up, they won’t be confused by facts. Consider, for example, Senator (and Presidential-hopeful) Rand Paul (R-KY) on the subject of SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance).

“[W]hen you look like me and hop out of your truck, you shouldn’t be getting your disability check. Over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts. Join the club.”

Blogger Steve Benen refutes Paul’s “over half” and the barely-submerged allegation of fraud with hard data from the Social Security Administration’s Inspector General, which, as he says, are basically the same as findings by the Government Accountability Office.

What’s so depressing is that we’ve been round this barn over and over again. Someone — an NPR reporter, for example, or a Fox News talking head — asserts that a lot of SSDI recipients could work if they wanted to, but instead have managed to get disability benefits based on “squishy” diagnoses or out-in-out fraud.

Analysts, advocates and responsible bloggers cite data showing, among other things, how stringent SSDI eligibility standards are, how few recipients can work at all, let alone ever earn enough to support themselves again, and how modest the benefits are — far too low for someone to choose them over gainful work.

Rebecca Vallas, whose post I linked to above, has written substantially the same thing so often I believe she could probably do it in her sleep.

What’s even more depressing is that the House Republican majority has now put SSDI recipients in unnecessary peril, relying, it seems, on the oft-debunked claims.

As I’ve written before, the trust fund that helps pay for SSDI benefits will run out of reserves in 2016. This has long been expected. And it has nothing to do with freeloaders, fraudsters or the difficulties jobless workers have had finding new employment due to the Great Recession.

Instead, the number of SSDI beneficiaries has grown in part because baby boomers are getting to the age where disabilities become more common and in part because more women are working — and working enough — to qualify.

A third factor — ironic in this context — is that Congress raised the eligibility age for full retirement benefits to help stave off a shortfall in the Old Age and Survivors Insurance trust fund, i.e., the one intended to ensure those benefits get paid in full.

In ordinary times, Congress would simply shift some payroll taxes that go to the OASI trust fund to the DI trust fund. It’s made such shifts 11 times — sometimes in one direction, sometimes the other.

Doing that now to protect disability benefits would have little effect on the OASI trust fund. It would merely run out of reserves one year earlier, while the DI trust fund would have enough to pay full benefits until the same year — this assuming Congress adopted the Social Security actuaries’ solvency scheme.

None of this matters a whit to Congressman Tom Reed (R-NY), who cosponsored a change in the House rules that effectively prevents any such shoring up of what he calls “a failing federal program.” You see how these unfounded attacks take hold in receptive minds?

No one, I think, questions the need to ensure that the OASI trust fund doesn’t run dry in about 20 years. But the long-term solution for both trust funds, which Reed claims he wants to force, will surely not emerge as law before 2016.

So the House rule, in effect, sets the stage for SSDI benefit cuts estimated at 19% in less than two years. These benefits now average $1,165 a month — less than $200 above the poverty level for a one-person household. Benefits for disabled workers’ spouses and children are far less.

Not surprising then that 44% of younger SSDI recipients, i.e., those 31-49 years old, are poor or near-poor, mostly the former. These are hardly people who can afford to lose close to a fifth of what’s probably their only source of cash income. And they’re many years away from eligibility for retirement benefits — even the reduced benefits they could get at 62.

Monique Morrissey at the Economic Policy Institute views the House rule as “largely symbolic,” since a simple majority can overturn it. And indeed it may if the benefit cuts become an immediate reality — in an election year too, she adds.

But in the meantime, the Republicans have leverage for any of a range of Social Security “reforms.” Morrissey notes recent references to such old warhorses as raising the retirement age (again), replacing social insurance altogether with private investment accounts and/or further means testing — perhaps a phase-out to zero for high-income seniors.

Will seniors, workers who hope they’ll live to be and organizations representing them take kindly to any of these? Faced with the possibilities, will they be told that the only alternative is to keep those other folks from draining the trust fund, as Morrissey predicts?

We’ve already got framing that pits the old against the young. Last thing we need is a spin-off into a conflict between the legitimate needs of seniors and those of younger people with severe disabilities.

And as I, joining many others, have said, it’s wholly unnecessary.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this, I came, somewhat belatedly, upon a post by Josh Marshall, the top dog at Talking Points Memo. He foresees the sort of conflict I refer to and calls it a deliberate “plan to set different classes of Social Security recipients against each other in a zero sum for scarce dollars when in fact the scarcity is manufactured.”


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