President Donald Trump’s budget would break one of his campaign promises to “keep Social Security intact.” Trump’s budget, according to several news sources that obtained leaked documents, would make significant cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which benefit disabled and low-income Americans.
Axios reported that the 2018 budget proposal would cut Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), SSDI, and other mandatory programs by $1.7 trillion. The Washington Post also reported that leaked budget documents show there would be some change in funding for SSI.
A source with knowledge of the 2018 budget told ThinkProgress that cuts to SSI would be so deep that the savings would be comparable to if the program were converted into a block grant.
The White House has attempted to sidestep any criticisms of cuts to Social Security by claiming it won’t cut “mainline” Social Security. In a briefing on the budget on Monday, the director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney said, “But people say, ‘Oh, Social Security Disability Insurance is part of Social Security,’ if you ask 999 people out of 1,000, they’ll say it’s not part of Social Security.”
But millions of people benefit from SSI and SSDI, which are both administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA). SSI, however, is funded by U.S. general Treasury funds, not the Social Security trust fund. To be eligible, you must be 65 years old or older, disabled, or blind, and SSI is strictly based on financial need, not work history. Most recipients would also be eligible for food stamps. Children who meet certain standards can be considered disabled under SSI. SSDI, on the other hand, is funded through payroll taxes. SSDI recipients must have worked a certain number of years and have accumulated social security credits, but be younger than 65.
Conservatives, and even some mainstream media outlets, have tried to paint these programs as wasteful and easy to access, but that simply isn’t the case. Recipients of payments aren’t getting rich off of SSDI or SSI, and the standards for receiving them are much higher than they are in other developed countries.
Although some conservatives have claimed that these programs have significantly hurt male labor force participation, there isn’t evidence of that. At most, SSDI benefits only account for 0.1 percentage point of the 8.4 percentage point decrease in men’s labor force participation from 1967 to 2014, according to a 2016 report from economist Jason Furman.
The average monthly amount of money an eligible individual would receive from SSI is only $773. An eligible couple receives $1,103. The number of people receiving SSI was about 8.3 million in 2015. There are 8.9 million disabled workers who receive disability insurance benefits — an average of $1,032 per month.
For eight in 10 beneficiaries of SSDI, it is their main or only source of income. The meager disability payments in the United States place us 30th of 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) international rankings.
“That’s really scraping by,” said Rebecca Vallas, managing director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. “It’s not even enough to afford an apartment at fair market rent and these are programs that are not providing enough for people to afford the basics, and those are what Trump is targeting.”
Moreover, the process for qualifying for SSI and SSDI can be challenging, for a number of reasons. People have to gather a slew of medical documents, and the United States has a pretty strict standard for people to qualify as disabled enough to receive SSDI or SSI. Only four in 10 people who apply for SSDI are approved for it, and that is after all stages of the appeals process. Twenty-seven percent of those who applied for SSI were approved.
There are five steps of evaluation to determine if people are eligible, with three of those steps requiring medical evidence such as doctor’s reports. The last two steps focus on the person’s work limitations and the “physical and mental demands of work,” according to the SSA.
“Not only do you have to prove through copious medical evidence that you can’t do your current job or your past job, but you also have to show that you couldn’t do any job …”
“The vast majority of people who apply for SSDI or SSI on basis of disability are denied, and that includes scores of people who had significant disabilities and serious illnesses,” Vallas said. “One reason it’s so hard to qualify is that unlike a lot of countries’ disability programs, where if you can’t do your job anymore because of a disability you get wage insurance, we have a much higher bar that people have to meet. Not only do you have to prove through copious medical evidence that you can’t do your current job or your past job, but you also have to show that you couldn’t do any job that exists in the entire national economy in significant numbers at a level where you could earn even $1,100 per month.”
Although the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, which provides a standardized classification of occupations, is used for decisions in SSI and SSDI cases, it hasn’t been updated since the 1990s. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the DOT’s usefulness has been questioned for decades:
“The DOT’s suitability for this purpose, given its growing age, has been a source of increasing concern, and SSA has explored alternatives since the late 1990s.”
A 2011 SSA report took a closer look at the denial of claims. Researchers looked at the characteristics of claims denied and approved to SSDI and SSI applicants. The report found that in 5.4 percent of cases denied at step four of the process, the adjudictor cited a job title that didn’t “clearly associate” with one of the applicant’s past jobs. At step five denials, researchers found a substantial number of cases where the Department on Disability Services cited jobs that “might be obsolete.”
Trump’s budget assumes the more than $800 billion in cuts from the House Republican health care plan would take effect. On top of those cuts, however, the budget draft document published Monday would call for an additional $610 billion in cuts over the next decade. Those cuts, combined with cuts to SSI and SSDI, would spell disaster for disabled and low-income Americans. Medicaid and both of these programs help ensure that disabled people have options and independence, Vallas said, which would mean “setting the clock back 50 years or more.”
“Medicaid is a source of health care for low-income people but a huge part of Medicaid and one of things that makes it critically important is that it provides support for long-term, community-based care for people with disabilities,” Vallas said. “Many people rely on Medicaid for attendant care and services, home modifications, and in-home hospital grade equipment. Rather than needing to be in state-run institution, they get to live in a house with family or in their own apartment and be part of their community.”
This piece was updated to reflect the full scope of cuts to Medicaid.