We should build up vital Social Security programs, not disparage their recipients

    A recent “This American Life” story and NPR series on the growth in the number of people receiving Social Security disability benefits has generated a lot of buzz. But as a slew of economists and Social Security experts have pointed out, it also got a lot wrong.

    The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

    A recent “This American Life” story and NPR series on the growth in the number of people receiving Social Security disability benefits has generated a lot of buzz. But as a slew of economists and Social Security experts have pointed out, it also got a lot wrong.

    Experts at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (I, II, III, IV) and the Center on Economic Policy Research (I, II), economists such as Harold Pollack and Lennard Davis, the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog,” and media watchdogs like Media Matters (I, II, III) have posted extensive rebuttals and fact-checks of the NPR series, pointing out that the growth that we’ve seen in the programs was expected and is the result of larger demographic factors like the aging of the baby boomers into their high-disability years, and women entering the workforce in greater numbers in the 1970s and ’80s, so that now many more are “insured” for benefits.

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    Groups like Paralyzed Veterans for America have protested the series’ skepticism of invisible disabilities. Over 120 groups have joined the national Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) Social Security Task Force (which I co-chair) and the Coalition on Human Needs in a letter expressing strong concerns with NPR’s inaccurate portrayal of the Social Security disability programs and people they help.

    But rather than rehash what others have already said, and said well, I’d like to offer a different perspective: that of someone who works directly with Social Security disability beneficiaries for whom these programs are nothing short of a vital lifeline.

    A vital lifeline for individuals with severe disabilities

    As an advocate at Community Legal Services here in Philadelphia, I see firsthand on a daily basis what our nation’s Social Security system means for people with serious health conditions and impairments. I also see how hard it is to qualify for benefits on the basis of a disability. Each and every day, I see individuals with significant disabilities who have been denied Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits because they’ve been told they’re not disabled enough.

    Take Bonnie Lee. Having worked her whole life since age 14, Bonnie never imagined she’d acquire a serious disability by her mid 40s. But about 10 years ago, after a fall that left her with several crushed bones, she learned she had a serious combination of osteoporosis and anemia. Her condition leaves her vulnerable to breaking several bones all at once — something that has happened to her on multiple occasions.

    After cashing out her 401(k) and spending most of her savings, she finally applied for SSDI benefits. Initially, she was denied. She almost lost hope. But after pushing forward for more than a year and a half with an appeal, and spending what was left of her savings just to survive, she was finally approved for benefits.

    The $1,200 she gets each month isn’t much, and it’s a whole lot less than she earned when she was still able to work. But to Bonnie it means being able to pay rent, buy food, pay for her medications, and keep the lights on in her home.

    Critical support to help keep families together

    The Social Security system also serves as a lifeline for families with disabled children. Caring for a child with a disability is incredibly expensive in the U.S. The combined hit of lost parental income when a parent reduces his or her hours or leaves work altogether due to caregiving responsibilities, plus added disability-related costs can be crushing. Together with Medicaid, for many families caring for children with severe disabilities, SSI makes it possible to keep them at home instead of sending them to an institution.

    Take Will Bentley. He’s 10 and lives with his parents and sister. Nearly from birth, Will’s parents knew something was wrong. He was slow in learning to speak and learned to sign so 
he could communicate. He had frequent, violent seizures. He struggled with anxiety and has memory problems. His mother Katie was forced to shut down her small business so she could stay home with Will, whose care became a full-time job.

    As Katie describes it, “I surrendered my career so that Will’s needs were met. SSI allows us to focus on what Will needs … At one time, Will was unable to do anything for himself. He could not even feed himself. Now he can read and zip his own jacket. For a parent with a child with a disability, the support that comes from SSI is a dream come true.”

    When Katie talks about what SSI means to her son and to her family, she gets teary-eyed.

    A symbol of American values

    Despite the growing popularity of painting Social Security disability beneficiaries as an “other” and a “threat” to our nation’s fiscal well-being, the truth is disability can happen to anyone, at any time. It’s in recognition of that fact that our Social Security system was established. Many people don’t realize how important these programs are until they or someone they love needs them. The “us and them” narrative could not be more misplaced.

    Social Security symbolizes what makes this country great — our shared values of looking out for one another, of providing support to the vulnerable, and of supporting strong families. Instead of tearing these vital programs down, we should be talking about strengthening them so that they can better serve their mission of ensuring economic security for people with severe disabilities, and making it possible for them to live independently and with dignity.

    Rebecca Vallas is a staff attorney and policy advocate at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. She is also co-chair of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Social Security Task Force.

    Note: Bonnie’s last name “Lee” is a pseudonym.

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