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Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) was caught on tape mocking those who receive disability benefits from the Social Security administration. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/wikimedia/cc)

Social Security Disability Insurance: A Primer for Rand Paul (and Everyone Else)

Rebecca Vallas


Well, that was fast.

Congress hasn’t been back even two weeks, and the conservative attacks on Social Security are already in full swing. As ThinkProgress reported last week, House conservatives kicked off the 114th Congress—literally on Day One—with a midnight rule change that prohibits a routine rebalancing of the Social Security trust funds, effectively manufacturing a crisis and putting millions of Social Security beneficiaries at risk of needless benefit cuts.

The plot thickened further yesterday when Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) took aim at beneficiaries of Social Security Disability Insurance with a series of incredibly offensive remarks at a private meeting with legislative leaders in Manchester, NH. In a situation resembling Mitt Romney’s famous remarks about the “47 percent,” Senator Paul’s comments were caught on tape by American Bridge, a left-leaning PAC that conducts opposition research to aid progressive candidates:

If you look like me and you hop out of your truck, you shouldn’t be getting a disability check. Over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts. Join the club. Who doesn’t get up a little anxious for work every day and their back hurts? Everyone over 40 has a back pain.

Senator Paul is just the latest conservative member of Congress to mock disabled workers for whom Social Security is a vital lifeline. But particularly coming on the heels of the dangerous rule change, the Senator’s remarks serve as a worrisome harbinger of what we can expect from conservatives in Congress in the coming weeks and months. So let’s get a few things straight. As Shawn Fremstad and I have written for the Center for American Progress, and in numerous outlets such as ThinkProgress, National Journal, and others:

The Social Security disability standard is among the strictest in the developed world—and most applications are denied. According to the OECD, the U.S. disability benefit system is the most restrictive and least generous of all member countries, except for Korea. Fewer than four in ten applicants are approved, even after all stages of appeal. Beneficiaries have severe impairments and illnesses like cancers, congestive heart failure, kidney failure, multiple sclerosis, emphysema, and severe mental illness. Many have multiple impairments. Medical evidence is the cornerstone of the disability determination process, and in most cases, medical evidence from multiple medical professionals is required to establish eligibility.

Social Security Disability Insurance is coverage that workers earn. To be insured for benefits, an individual must have worked and paid into the system. Both workers and employers pay for Social Security through payroll tax contributions. Workers currently pay 6.2 percent of the first $118,500 of their earnings each year, and employers pay the same amount up to the same cap. Of that 6.2 percent, 5.3 percent currently goes to the Old Age and Survivors Insurance, or OASI, trust fund, and 0.9 percent to the Disability Insurance trust fund.

Few beneficiaries are able to work. According to data from just before the onset of the recent economic downturn, some 16.9 percent of disability beneficiaries worked at some point during the year. Of those who worked, fewer than 3 percent earned more than $10,000 during the year – hardly enough to live on. This comes as no surprise given that many beneficiaries are very sick, or even terminally ill – one in five male and one in six female Disability Insurance beneficiaries die within five years of receiving benefits, and beneficiaries are three to five times more likely to die than other people their age. Further underscoring the strictness of the Social Security disability standard, even workers who have been denied Disability Insurance fare extremely poorly in the labor market. A recent study found that among people whose Disability Insurance applications were denied, the vast majority—70 percent to 80 percent—went on to earn less than $1,000 per month. But for those who are able or want to try to return to work, Social Security’s disability programs are designed to encourage work.

Disability benefits are incredibly modest, but vital. Disability Insurance benefits average $1,140 a month, just over the austere federal poverty level for a single person, or about $35 per day. Disability Insurance typically replaces less than half of an individual’s previous earnings. While the program’s benefits are modest, it keeps more than four million people with disabilities out of poverty each year. For 80 percent of beneficiaries, Disability Insurance is their main source of income. For one-third it is their only source of income.

Social Security Disability Insurance provides protection most of us could never afford on the private market. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just one in three private sector workers have access to employer-provided long-term disability insurance, and plans are often less adequate than Social Security. Access is especially limited for low-wage workers—only 7 percent of workers making under $12 an hour have employer-provided plans. In contrast, Social Security Disability Insurance protects more than 9 out of 10 American workers and their families in the event of a life-changing disability or illness that prevents substantial work. A young worker starting a career today has a one-in-three chance of either dying or needing to turn to Disability Insurance before reaching his or her full Social Security retirement age of 67.

As progressives, we don’t let people get away with denying the facts about climate change. It’s long past time to send a message to conservatives that this kind of offensive, fact-free rhetoric about Social Security disability won’t fly either.

© 2021
Rebecca Vallas

Rebecca Vallas

Rebecca Vallas is the Associate Director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.

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