NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Disability Benefits Act as Shadow Safety Net

April 15, 2011

For the last five years, Social Security has paid out more in benefits to disabled workers than it has taken in from payroll taxes.  About 8.2 million people collected disabled worker benefits totaling $115 billion last year, up from 5 million a decade earlier.  But given the difficult job market, some economists say they believe that an increasing number of people rely on disability benefits as a kind of shadow safety net, says the New York Times.

  • The program was designed to help workers who are "permanently and totally disabled."
  • But Social Security officials can take into consideration a claimant's age, skills and ability to retrain when determining eligibility.
  • So one question is: How many of these beneficiaries could work, given the right services and workplace accommodations.

Even if claimants have more ambiguous medical cases, once they are granted disability benefits, they generally continue to collect. 

  • Of the 567,395 medical reviews conducted on beneficiaries in 2009, Social Security expects less than 1 percent to leave because of improved health.
  • The benefits have no expiration date, like the current 99-week limit for collecting unemployment.

Source: Motoko Rich, "Disabled, but Looking for Work," New York Times, April 6, 2011.

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