Recent reports suggest that the disability rolls have increased over the past few years.  The reports suggest a number of reasons:  more women in the workforce who have paid Social Security taxes have increased eligibility; individuals who working with disabilities apply when they lose their jobs due to the high levels of unemployment and the baby boomers who are now getting older and becoming more fragile with age.  Some studies suggest that Americans are generally in better health, despite contrary reports about the growing medical problems caused by increasing obesity.

The one bright light in the most recent article reported in the New York Times today is that the author notes that the disability program offers “essential support” for disabled workers – many of whom have no chance of holding another job due to medical problems, physical restrictions and mental limitations.  Every day, I talk to people whose lives are in economic ruin due to an inability to work.  Every person I talk to would trade their medical problems for an ability to hold a job down.  It is heartening that even with the recent concerns about the viability of the Social Security Disability program, major news outlets remain convinced, as I do, that the disability program is vital to those who cannot work.

A recent report reflects that a record number of workers and their dependents have began receiving federal disability checks over the past four years.  Causes are varied and include the fact that the rules loosened following some changes by Congress in 1984.  However, more women have entered the workforce, making them eligible for disability.  Research suggests that the aging of the population has contributed only modestly to the program’s growth.

But the big factor in the recent surge is the slow pace of the economic recovery after the severe recession. That has kept the unemployment rate above 8% and created an enormous pool of long-term unemployed and discouraged workers. The number of applications last year was up 24% compared with 2008, Social Security Administration data show.

When opportunities for employment are plentiful, some people who could quality for (disability insurance) benefits find working more attractive … when employment opportunities are scarce, some of these people participate in the disability program instead.

What reports overlook is the fact that disability is a safety net and the fact that more Americans are taking advantage of the program reflects that more Americans are in need of this safety net during period of economic distress.  Americans should be thankful for the Social Security Disability system.

Direct Express

April 19, 2012

Starting next year, the federal government, which issues 73 million payments a month, is phasing out paper checks for all benefit programs, requiring people to get payments electronically, either through direct deposit or a debit card for those without a bank account.  The changes will affect people who get Social Security, veterans’ benefits, railroad pensions and federal disability payments.  About 90 percent of people who receive federal benefits already get their payments electronically, and new beneficiaries were required to get payments electronically starting last year, and with a few exceptions, the rest will have to make the switch by March 2013.

Representatives from the Treasury Department maintain that electronic payments are safer and more efficient than paper checks; citing the more than 500,000 federal benefit checks were reported lost or stolen in 2010. The switch will save the government about $120 million a year. Social Security will save $1 billion over the next decade, according to the Treasury Department.  Further, paper checks with personal information are more susceptible to fraud versus an electronic payment.

Advocates for seniors say they understand the government’s desire to cut costs and take advantage of technologies that most workers already use. The food stamp program switched from paper coupons to debit cards in 2004, but they have raised concerns about requiring the switch for older retirees who may not be used to electronic payments.  The Treasury Rule that mandates electronic payments exempts current beneficiaries who are 90 and older from switching.  Individuals may also request a waiver if using a debit card would impose an extreme hardship.

AARP has concerns about fees associated with the debit cards. The Direct Express cards are issued by Comerica Bank, Treasury’s financial agent. Each month, benefit payments are added to the cards, which can be used to make purchases or withdraw cash from ATMs. There are no fees for using the debit card to make purchases. They can be used at any retailer that accepts MasterCard debit cards. If a card is lost or stolen, the beneficiary is protected from unauthorized use as long as the missing card is reported promptly.  Cardholders can make one free ATM withdrawal each time a payment is registered in the card. Subsequent withdrawals will cost 90 cents each, and all withdrawals may be subject to fees by the owner of the ATM.

The government’s switch to electronic payments also comes with a side effect: less business for the U.S. Postal Service, an agency that is already facing big budget problems with the rise of email and electronic bill paying.  The private sector has been migrating to electronic payments for years, costing the Postal Service millions of customers, said Alan Robinson, editor of the Postal Journal, a trade publication.

The government has created a website, and a toll-free phone number, 1-800-333-1795, people can call for assistance.

In recent years, the Social Security Administration has created a list of medical impairments that are to be fast-tracked for favorable decisions.  Compassionate Allowances are a way of quickly identifying diseases and other medical conditions that invariably qualify based on minimal objective medical information. Compassionate Allowances allow Social Security to quickly target the most obviously disabled individuals for allowances based on objective medical information.  Today, SSA announced the addition of 52 new medical impairments to the list of the “compassionate allowances”.  These conditions involve cancers, neurological, and immune system disorders affecting adults and children.  New additions include Ewings Sarcoma, Juvenile Onset Huntington Disease and Child Neuroblastoma.

What is intriguing is that although SSA has identified these diseases as automatically disabling based on information they have gathered through public hearings, they are not fully included in the list of diseases until August 13, 2012.

The Washington Post has reported this week that the burden of paying for college is wreaking havoc on the finances of senior citizens.  New research shows that Americans 60 and older still owe over $35 billion in student loans.  More than 10% of the loans are delinquent, prompting consumer advocates to state that it is not uncommon for Social Security checks to be garnished for debt collection.  

For seniors to be saddled with student loan debts highlights a central conflict in the nation’s higher education system:  the benefits of a college degree are being diluted by rising tuition rates and the longevity of debt.  Some of these Americans are grappling with the first wave of student loans while others undertook debt when they returned to school later in life hoping to embark on a second career.  The recent economic climate has exacerbated the problem.  

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