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Trump budget proposal for Social Security shrinks disability insurance, extends wait times

The disability insurance system will pay out $84 billion less over the next decade if the White House gets its way.

President Donald Trump's budget consigliere, Mick Mulvaney. (Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump's budget consigliere, Mick Mulvaney. (Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s new budget proposal would cut Social Security payouts by $84 billion over the next decade while providing fewer resources to explain the changes to recipients.

The cuts come from a variety of changes to how the program’s disability insurance component functions. Though Trump has previously made repeated promises to shield Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits from the budget ax, his administration asserts that cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) do not constitute cuts to the Social Security program writ large.

The budget plan projects $47.5 billion in additional cuts to SSDI from unspecified “new approaches to increase labor force participation.” A further $10 billion in cuts would be generated by reducing the amount of retroactive payment a disabled person can receive for time out of the work force prior to their decision to seek coverage.

The budget tables list a series of other changes to the disability insurance system that each generate smaller cuts, with a total of $84.09 billion in savings over the decade.

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This assault on disability insurance and other major benefits programs violates one of Trump’s campaign promises. Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, has previously boasted that he convinced Trump that disability insurance is different from other Social Security programs. But all three benefits programs in Social Security are funded by the same pool of money ponied up by workers themselves.

“He turns around and guts these programs. Our programs, taking our money, that we earned,” Social Security Works’ Alex Lawson said. “A budget is a moral document, and what this budget shows is that we have an immoral administration occupying the White House right now.”

The budget also chips away at Social Security’s relationship with its enrollees in smaller ways. It proposes a $400 million year-over-year cut to Social Security Administration funding, for instance.

Presidents lay out their proposed funding levels against the prior year’s backdrop. But that one-year snapshot conceals the reality of Trump’s Social Security Administration (SSA) slashing, which can be seen more clearly with the context of successive year-over-year cuts going back nearly a decade.

Powerbrokers at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue have been obsessed with deficits throughout that time. Though activist coalitions staved off multiple attempts to cut benefits for Social Security participants, the political sacredness of retiree payments doesn’t extend to the people in charge of making the retirement and disability systems actually function.

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And while SSA budgets have been slashed each year since 2010, the agency’s clientele has exploded in that time, as baby boomers started to hit retirement age. The double squeeze on SSA’s capacity has had predictable and avoidable negative effects.

Callers to the agency’s toll-free help line now spend almost 20 minutes on hold before getting the human assistance they need, up from a three-minute average wait in 2010. The incidence of callers getting a busy signal has more than doubled as well.

In-person customer service is also harder to obtain now than it was before lawmakers started hacking away at SSA’s funding. The agency laid off 3,500 field office workers from 2010 to 2018 in response to the cuts. It closed 64 of its 1,200-plus permanent field offices and shuttered another 500-plus part-time “contact stations” that also provided face-to-face answers for people who run into an issue with their benefits.

These may seem small issues. The SSA itself has downplayed the impact of its retreat from traditional customer service, urging beneficiaries to lean on its online help systems to troubleshoot lost cards, benefit appeals, and other common issues. But for people living on a fixed income, any issue that threatens a delay in benefit payments can often present existential threats: eviction, a bare cupboard, lost means of transportation to visit loved ones and doctors.

But anything that makes the Social Security system marginally more annoying to use helps chip away at the political forces that protect it from the kinds of dastardly “entitlement reform” schemes long touted by politicians willing to misrepresent the program’s financial situation. The cliché about Social Security benefits being a third rail of American politics is true in part because people are able to get exactly what they paid for in an efficient, reliable fashion. Screwing up the customer service Americans get from the program could, in time, reduce the voltage of the voter backlash that rightly scares many politicians off of the entitlement reform bandwagon.

And while the budget expects a continued undermining of customer service that people actually need, the administration is apparently ready to ask the same staff already floundering to keep up with beneficiaries’ needs to take on a new and insidious task: snooping on disability insurance recipients’ social media feeds.

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Unlike the budget’s proposed cuts to Social Security, Trump’s team could force SSA staffers into policing disability recipients’ Facebook posts without any help from Congress. And the agency has reportedly already worked up a plan for such a disability panopticon – “[u]nder pressure from the White House,” according to a Sunday report in the New York Times – that would see SSA undertake the new surveillance work sometime next year.

CORRECTION: This piece originally included information about changes to Social Security Disability Insurance that were characterized incorrectly to ThinkProgress by a source. This piece has been corrected to remove these mischaracterizations.