Seattle Times, November 24, 2012, by Alex K.F. Doolittle and Debra Shifrin
BALANCING the federal budget was a focal point of the campaign season leading up to the election. As the deficit continues to grow, most agree that spending cuts are mandatory in order to see significant progress toward budget control.
Which cuts should be made is still being debated. Many believe entitlement programs should be on the shortlist, with some politicians targeting the Social Security Disability Insurance benefits program as one of the top contenders of waste and fraud.
Adversaries of the program cite increasing cases of nondisabled claimants receiving benefits as the primary reason for their extreme criticism of what has proved to be a vital lifeline for disabled workers in the United States.
But critics fail to mention key facts. Social Security Disability Insurance cases are on the rise because the baby-boomer generation is getting older and more susceptible to injury and illness, and more women in the workforce today means more women are eligible for the insurance than ever before.
Also excluded from the conversation about Social Security Disability Insurance are the consequences of cutting money to the program. Not only will disabled workers who collect the insurance benefits immediately suffer, but the entire nation will also experience larger societal costs if more insurance claimants are denied the benefits they have earned.
Maintaining a strong Social Security Disability Insurance program prevents disabled workers from relying on safety-net programs such as welfare, as well as the emergency-response and health-care systems.
It also prevents significant personal and societal burdens like home foreclosures, evictions and bankruptcies. For some people and families, Social Security Disability Insurance benefits are the only path to economic security and they make the difference between housing and homelessness.
Earlier this year, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty released a report showing that denying Social Security Disability Insurance benefits perpetuates homelessness. The study stated that up to 40 percent of the national homeless community could qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, but only 14 percent actually receive them.
The impact of any cuts to Social Security would hit home in Seattle and King County. As part of the 2012 One Night Count, volunteers of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness counted 2,594 homeless men, women and children surviving outside without shelter, and more than 6,000 were utilizing homeless shelters and transitional housing. Those numbers would certainly rise if Seattle’s disabled workers are unable to secure their Social Security Disability Insurance benefits.
The Seattle Community Law Center provides legal advocacy to people with disabilities who are either low income or homeless, helping them with. applications and denial appeals so that they can secure the benefits that they have earned.
Many of the claimants we meet have worked low-wage, labor-intensive jobs most of their lives, such as farming potatoes, logging or working on the docks. Others suffer from severe anxiety, depression and paranoia, sometimes due to a lifetime of domestic abuse, other times due to direct involvement in war or other violence. Most of the claimants we assist are completely isolated from the world around them.
Many use Social Security Disability Insurance to to seek medical attention outside of emergency rooms for the first time in years.
If any cuts to the Social Security Disability Insurance program are approved, people will not have access to the benefits they contributed to while they worked. Cuts would also create a loss of integrity in a system that already struggles to fully educate beneficiaries about the work incentives that are available to them if and when returning to work is possible.
Stabilizing the national budget is a priority, but it cannot be achieved by turning our backs on our country’s disabled workers and pushing more of them out on the street and into despair.
Alex K.F. Doolittle, is executive director of the Seattle Community Law Center. Debra Shifrin is a founding partner at Shifrin Newman Smith and current president of the National Organization of Social Security Representatives.