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