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Myths about Mental Illness and Social Security Disability Insurance Debunked

In order to justify its $64 billion in cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), the Trump administration and its allies have had to propagate several myths.  The most insidious one is that many SSDI recipients are not truly worthy of benefits.  They have suggested that mental illness is among the more dubious qualifications for SSDI.  Senator Rand Paul famously remarked that “over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts.” Former Director of the National Economic Council Gene Sperling sums it up quite succinctly in The Atlantic:

 

The Administration is already deploying selective—and often deceptive—facts to stigmatize and caricature both the Social Security Disability Insurance program and its recipients. This sort of framing justifies using Social Security as a piggy bank to raid in order to help offset tax cuts for top-earning Americans. – Gene Sperling, 5/23/17

 

These convenient myths can be effective in undermining public support for SSDI, but they are dangerous for the millions of Americans with mental disorders who depend on federal disability benefits to prevent them from sinking into abject poverty.  Here are the facts: 

 

Nearly 25% of the nation’s 8 million SSDI recipients have a mental impairment as their primary diagnosis – or qualification – for benefits. They may suffer from a variety of disorders, including severe depression, anxiety, PTSD and intellectual impairment, which make it impossible for them to work or hold a job.  Many of those deemed eligible for SSDI benefits because of mental disorders also suffer from related physical disabilities.  The majority of these beneficiaries are over 50 years of age.  These are some of the vulnerable people the Trump administration is targeting with budget cuts – beneficiaries who struggle to make ends meet on an average $1172 per month from SSDI, just above the federal poverty line.  As Think Progress reports, for eight in ten beneficiaries, SSDI is their main or sole source of income. 

 

Why don’t these SSDI recipients simply work for a living, as OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and other administration apologists insinuate that they should?  Stacy Cloyd, Deputy Director of Government Affairs for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR), explains why it’s so difficult for people with severe mental impairments to hold a job:  

 

“The symptoms of mental illness can make it difficult to concentrate on tasks, to routinely interact with customers and put on a friendly face, or handle changes in the workplace.  Like people with physical disabilities, those struggling with mental disorders may need to miss an excessive amount of work for doctor’s appointments, hospitalizations, or because of side effects from medications.”  - Stacy Cloyd, Deputy Dir. of Gov’t Affairs, NOSSCR

 

Stacy recalls two clients from a previous job assisting SSDI claimants whose stories starkly illustrate why it’s so difficult for the mentally impaired to sustain paying work.  One was a woman who suffered from PTSD due to domestic abuse.  After her husband tried to burn down their house, she experienced debilitating flashbacks and panic attacks that resembled seizures, and could barely leave home.  No longer to able to work, she had to discontinue her job in the fast food industry and applied for SSDI.  “She was awarded benefits at the time she needed them, which enabled her to keep a roof over head and food on the table while seeking treatment,” Cloyd explains.

 

The second client was a man in his 60s who had an intellectual impairment (formerly known as “mental retardation”) who for several years worked as a custodian through a special employment program and paid into Social Security.  He was later forced to give up the custodial work due to a variety of ailments.  Unable to find alternate employment because of his intellectual impairment, he applied for – and received – SSDI benefits.  It’s hard to imagine this older man being able to meet his basic living expenses without a job and without SSDI. 

 

While some fiscal conservatives and others perpetuate the myth that people on SSDI are simply lazy and scamming the system in order to avoid working, Cloyd insists that the opposite is true.

 

“If given a choice between dealing with the pain they suffer – mentally or physically – and collecting SSDI benefits… or being free of this pain and working for a living, I can tell you that they all would choose to work.” - Stacy Cloyd, Deputy Dir. of Gov’t Affairs, NOSSCR

 

Of course, having a severe mental or physical impairment is no guarantee of receiving SSDI benefits. The United States has one of the strictest federal disability standards in the world (only South Korea is more stringent).  Only one in four SSDI applicants is actually approved for benefits.  Wait times for approvals and appeals can be anywhere from months to years. In case anyone doubts the severity of beneficiaries’ conditions, one in six men on SSDI die within 5 years of approval for benefits; for women, the figure is one in seven.

 

Unfortunately, the cold facts do not deter the administration’s propagandists from insisting that many SSDI beneficiaries are somehow undeserving of help – even though they must have worked and paid into Social Security for five of the past ten years before applying.  The ARC advocacy organization estimates that 946,000 beneficiaries could be booted off SSDI if the Trump budget cuts are enacted:  that’s nearly one million mentally and physically impaired Americans deprived of minimal benefits to “keep a roof above their heads and food on the table” in order to give the wealthy and big corporations a massive tax cut. Capitol Hill watchers say the President’s budget is simply a “messaging document” with little chance of passage, in which case we say it is a cruel and frightening message to send some of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens.  

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For more on mental impairments and Social Security Disability Insurance, watch this week's "Behind The Headlines" on Facebook Live. 

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Trump Budget Shatters President's Promise on Social Security, Medicaid

The President’s promise not to touch Social Security was officially revealed to be a sham today.  Trump’s proposed 2018 budget slashes $64 billion from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).  Some media outlets have let the President off the hook by saying the budget does not cut Social Security benefits.  This headline from Fox Business News is typical, even in the mainstream media:

Trump’s Budget Slashes Spending, Leaves Social Security & Medicare Untouched – Fox Business News, 5/22/17


A CNN Money correspondent just perpetuated the administration’s misleading spin, telling Wolf Blitzer this afternoon that Trump’s budget “doesn’t touch Social Security.”   

Other media outlets are hedging by saying the Trump budget doesn’t cut “core” Social Security benefits – whatever that means.  Social Security Disability Insurance is a crucial and inseparable part of Social Security. Period.  No amount of parsing can cleave the two.  When you cut a program, you hurt people – whether the cuts affect “core” benefits or not.

In this case, the millions of Americans with disabilities who rely on SSDI for basic income security are the ones who stand to be hurt.  Though SSDI helps younger Americans, too, most of its beneficiaries are 55 or over – meaning any cuts to the program will hit older Americans particularly hard.   The human consequences do not seem to disturb the President’s Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, as is obvious from this exchange with a reporter in the White House press room:


Reporter:  Will any of those individuals who receive SSDI receive less from this budget?

Mulvaney:  I hope so.

Mulvaney clarified that he thought the program has been enrolling too many people and called for cuts in the number of enrollees, even though that number has been shrinking.  Earlier this year, the Budget Director wondered aloud on television why SSDI is considered part of Social Security, despite the fact that it unequivocally is – and has been – since 1956.  SSDI is funded by workers’ Social Security payroll tax contributions – just like retirement benefits.   Qualifying disability beneficiaries must meet certain work history requirements, same as they do for retirement benefits.  When SSDI recipients reach retirement age, they transition seamlessly into the Social Security retirement program.  In no way is SSDI separable from Social Security.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reports that the Trump budget contains $72 billion in cuts to federal disability programs — primarily Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income, which provides income assistance to poor seniors and people with disabilities.  The budget does not contain hard details of exactly how SSDI will be cut, but CBPP offers this insight:

$48 billion would come from a vague proposal to “test new approaches to increase labor force participation.”  But the Social Security Administration has undertaken many demonstration projects over the years to test new ways to encourage beneficiaries to return to work, and they have consistently shown limited results or proved not cost-effective. The budget also contains other proposals that would cut Social Security benefits for disabled workers and SSI benefits for households with more than one disabled family member.  – Center for Budget and Policy Priorities

Cutting benefits for Americans with disabilities fits right in with the cruel theme running through the President’s entire budget, which decimates programs for society’s most vulnerable citizens in order to give the rich and big corporations a massive tax cut.  In addition to SSDI, the Trump budget guts Medicaid, and cuts funding for other programs benefitting seniors including Meals on Wheels, home heating assistance, and community service employment.  

Candidate Donald Trump repeatedly vowed not to touch Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  The drastic cuts to SSDI and Medicaid – along with the weakening of Medicare’s solvency in the Republicans’ healthcare legislation – makes the President zero for three on these promises.   Knowing that he cannot be trusted to protect seniors, advocates and everyday Americans must work to defeat the Trump budget in Congress – and make sure it never reaches his desk.

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Trump & GOP Should Do More than Pay Lip Service to Older Americans Month

May is Older Americans Month.  It began in 1963 as “Senior Citizens Month” by proclamation of President John F. Kennedy.  His proclamation half a century ago was not only an acknowledgment of seniors’ contributions to society, but an inspiring call to action:


“I urge all persons and public and private organizations to cooperate in its observance by increasing community awareness of the problems faced by older men and women, strengthening services and opportunities to meet their special needs… and making this special month the beginning of continuing interest and activity on their behalf.” – John F. Kennedy, April 18, 1963

 

At the time, approximately 33 percent of seniors in America lived in poverty. Today that figure is down closer to 10 percent, thanks in no small part to federal programs designed to buttress the financial and health security of older Americans, including Medicare and Medicaid – signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965.  LBJ also renamed Senior Citizens Month “Older Americans Month” that same year upon passage of the Older Americans Act.  This legislation created new forms of federal assistance for seniors – including Meals on Wheels and home heating assistance.  Every President since has issued proclamations honoring seniors during the month of May.  President Trump is no exception.  Today, the White House released a statement saying:


We… recommit ourselves to ensuring that older Americans are not neglected or abused, receive the best healthcare available, live in suitable homes, have adequate income and economic opportunities, and enjoy freedom and independence in their golden years.” – White House proclamation, 5/8/17


These sentiments sound quite noble.  But the Trump proclamation is an empty missive in light of the administration’s policies. National Committee President Max Richtman called out the President and his party in The Hill newspaper last week:


“May is Older Americans Month, but the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans are putting a serious damper on the celebration.” – Max Richtman, The Hill newspaper.


The Trump administration and its allies on Capitol Hill are engaged in a historic reversal of the promises of 54 years ago. In fact, not since President George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security in 2005 have seniors’ programs been so much under siege.  In a little more than 3 months in office, here is what the President and/or Republicans in Congress have done to undermine the economic and health security of older Americans:

*Passed the American Health Care Act (AHCA), which weakens Medicare, cuts $1 trillion from Medicaid, and makes private health insurance unaffordable for most older Americans.

*Created a budget plan which eliminates federal funding for Older Americans Act programs including Meals on Wheels, community service jobs, and home heating assistance, among others.

*Pledged to turn Medicare into a voucher program during the mark-up of the FY 2018 budget later this month.

*Introduced a House bill to raise the Social Security retirement age to 70 and slow the growth of Cost-of-Living adjustments (COLAs), effectively cutting benefits 30%.

*Repeatedly pushed the concept of “entitlement reform” and questioned the validity of Social Security Disability insurance

Several of these break President Trump’s campaign promises “not to touch” Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  Some in the administration and Congress have attempted to fudge the issue by saying that none of their policies will affect current retirees.  But during this Older Americans Month, it’s wise to remember that all of us will be seniors some day.  Attempts to cleave today’s and tomorrow’s seniors is a cynical ploy that cannot be allowed to undermine time-honored programs that have helped older Americans for decades.  None of the actions of President Trump, his team, and his allies in Congress honor the spirit of Older Americans Month.  Much more fitting are the words of President Obama last night as he accepted an honor named after the President who created Older Americans Month, the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage award.

“… It actually doesn’t take a lot of courage to aid those who are already powerful, already comfortable, already influential — but it does require some courage to champion the vulnerable and the sick and the infirm.” - President Obama, 5/7/17

Seniors citizens are among society’s most vulnerable and infirm members. We must demand that our current elected leaders do much more than pay lip service to the ideals of Older Americans Month.


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Ryan's Siren Song of Spring: Cut "Entitlements"

Along with Cherry Blossoms and the White House Easter Egg Roll, Spring has brought fresh talk of “entitlement reform” to the Nation’s Capital.  Of course, Social Security and Medicare are not “entitlements.”  They are earned benefits that Americans pay into during their working lives in exchange for retirement and health benefits during their senior years.  Nevertheless, House Speaker Paul Ryan and other budget hawks prefer to perpetuate the “entitlement” myth.  This week, Ryan said that fiscal responsibility means “reforming our entitlement programs.”  “Reforming” is code for undermining Social Security and privatizing Medicare, two politically unpopular ideas that nonetheless seem to drive Ryan’s agenda.  Never mind that Social Security and Medicare Part A are funded by workers’ payroll contributions and don’t contribute a penny to the deficit.  

Meanwhile, House Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black (R-TN) is looking to end traditional Medicare through the budget reconciliation process in May, according to Congressional Quarterly.

“The coming fiscal 2018 plan is likely to include proposals to transform Medicare… into a premium support program.  Under one House GOP model… people would be given a choice of traditional Medicare or insurer-run plans starting in 2024.” – Congressional Quarterly, 4/27/17

 “Premium support” is an innocuous sounding term that could have dire consequences for seniors.  What Diane Black means by “premium support” is converting Medicare into a voucher program.  Seniors would be offered the option of leaving traditional Medicare to buy insurance in the private market using vouchers.  These vouchers could never keep pace with rising premiums, meaning seniors would have to cover the difference or drop health insurance entirely.  Older and sicker seniors would likely remain in conventional Medicare, causing the program’s cost to skyrocket, benefits to be cut, and eventually the death of Medicare itself.

The canard that Ryan and his party use to justify cutting benefits, reducing COLAs, and raising retirement ages is that Social Security and Medicare are going “bankrupt.” While it’s true that the trust funds for Social Security and Medicare Part A won’t be able to pay full benefits after 2034 and 2028 respectively without corrective action, there are modest and manageable solutions that won’t hurt the seniors who depend on them.  Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman John Larson (D-CT) have both offered common sense legislation to keep Social Security solvent for decades.  Both bills ask the wealthy to pay their fair share by scrapping the income cap on payroll taxes.  Larson’s legislation also increases the FICA tax by 1% over 25 years.  (Larson says that for a worker earning $50,000 a year, the payroll tax bump equals one Starbucks coffee drink every 9 weeks). Instead of cutting benefits for our most vulnerable citizens – or raising the retirement age – these bills actually increase benefits and COLAs. 

Medicare could be kept solvent well into this century by similarly modest and manageable means, if budget hawks like Ryan would stop insisting that privatization is the only fix. Congress could authorize Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices (one of the biggest drivers of rising health care costs).  Innovative methods for saving Medicare costs under the Affordable Care Act, many of which have already reduced healthcare expenditures, could be expanded instead of repealed.  In fact, the Affordable Care Act itself extended the solvency of Medicare by four years.  Repealing the ACA – as Ryan and President Trump are still struggling to do – hurts the long-term solvency of the program.

Ryan and many conservative Republicans ignore these alternatives because, at heart, they do not believe in federal programs that provide Americans with retirement and health security – which puts them at odds with the majority of voters. The latest National Committee poll indicates wide public support for progressive solutions for Social Security and Medicare – and significant opposition to the GOP approach. Seventy-nine percent favor increasing Social Security benefits by scrapping the payroll tax income cap.  Sixty-five percent oppose raising the Medicare eligibility age.  Ninety-three percent want Medicare to be able to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

The National Committee’s social media community seems to agree.  Comments on our Facebook posts over the past three months demonstrate deep skepticism about Republican talking points:

Bruce W. These programs are NOT "entitlements"--we have paid into them our entire working lives. If the income subject to SS fees was raised SS would be solvent for decades...
Suzanne S. Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit. It is a stand-alone program funded by workers. LEAVE IT ALONE.
Tom S.  Social Security and Medicare are lifelines to millions of seniors; anyone who votes in favor of cutting or reducing benefits should be ashamed of themselves!
Adam R.  Social Security has nothing to do with the general budget at all. FACT. It is not an entitlement, This is basically a Trust fund we have paid into all our working lives.

Americans intuitively understand that Social Security and Medicare are social insurance programs that they have already paid for through their hard-earned wages.  For 82 years and 52 years respectively, these programs have worked efficiently to keep seniors healthy and out of poverty.  Our Facebook commenter is perfectly correct to call them “lifelines to millions of seniors.”  Yes, their finances need to be shored up. But asking beneficiaries to bear the burden is not the right way. It’s too bad that some of our most powerful political leaders do not seem to understand… or care.

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No Spring Break Ceasefire in the War on the Working Class

Congress may be home for Easter break and President Trump is busy dropping bombs in Syria and Afghanistan, but the War on the Working Class continues unabated.  In fact, it was quite a busy week for floating dangerous ideas about our nation’s healthcare and retirement security. 

First, the Associated Press ran a story based on information from an unnamed “GOP lobbyist” saying that Republicans are considering repealing the Social Security payroll tax.  Under this alleged plan, Social Security would be funded from general revenue and therefore subject to competition with other domestic programs --- and the whims of Congressional budget cutters.  Never mind that the payroll tax is what makes Social Security an earned benefit.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt set it up that way on purpose to “give the contributors a legal, moral and political right to collect” their Social Security checks.  Plus, the current payroll tax deduction has been working pretty well for the past 80 years.

Since enough members of Congress realize this is an awful proposal that would never pass the House and Senate, clearly someone is out there floating crazy ideas in the press.  (In addition, the A.P. story itself lacked any real sense of balance or context.) While the source for the A.P. story was unnamed, a top Trump administration official very publicly floated notions that seem to undermine President Trump’s promise not to touch Social Security and Medicare.  In an interview with CNBC’s John Harwood on Tuesday, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney just couldn't say whether President Trump would veto legislation to privatize Medicare.  “Let [Congress] pass that and let’s talk about it,” he demurred. 

When Harwood asked if Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) was on the list of potential programs to be cut, Mulvaney offered this non-reassuring response:

“I continue to look forward to talking to the president about ways to fix that program. Because that is one of the fastest growing programs that we have. It's become effectively a long-term unemployment, permanent unemployment program.” – Mick Mulvaney

Of course, that response is riddled with inaccuracies.  SSDI is not growing, it’s leveling off at a lower rate that is likely to plateau for the next 20 years.  It most definitely is not an unemployment program of any kind – permanent or otherwise. SSDI is one of the strictest federal disability programs in the world in terms of qualifying for benefits.  Only those who are able to demonstrate that they are unable to work for medical reasons qualify.  Among all the people who apply, only 40% are accepted.  If accepted, the average beneficiary receives only $1,170 per month, less than one could earn in a full time job at the federal minimum wage.

That didn’t stop the Washington Post from echoing some of the same right-wing myths about SSDI in a recent feature story and an editorial entitled, “The Social Security Disability Program Needs Reform.”  The story wrongly intimates that rural, working-class Americans are using SSDI as a unemployment program.  On Monday, Media Matters for America attempted to correct the record:

“The Post’s mischaracterization of SSDI follows a long history of misinformation from mainstream outlets, which often publish error-riddled stories filled with anecdotal evidence portraying disability recipients as undeserving. These pieces sound as if they come from right-wing media, which have spent years attacking the program and its recipients.” – Media Matters, 4/10/17

While the press was replete with nutty notions about Social Security and Medicare, the President and Congressional Republicans were reviving the specter of the moribund GOP healthcare bill.  Just when you thought it was dead, Freedom Caucus members say they are close to a deal with the White House and Speaker Ryan to repeal and replace Obamacare within three weeks.  Meanwhile, Politico reports that President Trump is threatening to cut off cost-sharing subsidies that help pay for low income earners’ health coverage in order to force Democrats to the negotiating table on the GOP health plan.

Fortunately, protesters are out in full force this week at town halls pushing back against supporters of the Republican bill, including one of the National Committee’s own grassroots volunteers who organized a rally outside a Florida congressman’s office.  This proves that Spring break is a good time for grassroots action. Just because it’s holiday time doesn’t mean those waging war against the working class won’t put some rotten eggs in our Easter baskets.

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