AP's Social Security Disability System Writeup Inadvertently Corrects Meme About Benefit Denials Under Reagan

To borrow from a certain president's former preacher, the "chickens are coming home to roost" in Social Security's disability program. It's nearly bankrupt, and set to run out of cash by 2017.

In the Associated Press's writeup ("Social Security disability on verge of insolvency") of the situation occasioned by a congressional report repeating the obvious, Stephen Ohlemacher surprisingly and correctly retold a bit of the history which readers should find quite interesting, as it largely explains how the program got out of control (bold is mine):

Congress tried to rein in the disability program in the late 1970s by making it tougher to qualify. The number of people receiving benefits declined for a few years, even during a recession in the early 1980s. Congress, however, reversed course and loosened the criteria, and the rolls were growing again by 1984.

The disability program "got into trouble first because of liberalization of eligibility standards in the 1980s," said Charles Blahous, one of the public trustees who oversee Social Security. "Then it got another shove into bigger trouble during the recent recession."

Today, about 13.6 million people receive disability benefits through Social Security or Supplemental Security Income.

Those of us who were around and tried to pay attention during the early 1980s when a very few entities (The New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, and three or four wire services) had a virtual stranglehold on national news coverage were led to believe that it was the evil, mean, heartless, cruel, unfeeling, uncaring Reagan administration which on its own initiative was solely responsible for its attempt to trim the disability rolls of people who did not qualify. As Ohlemacher indicates, what really happened was that Team Reagan -- silly them -- was trying to implement a law which a firmly Democrat-controlled Congress (58-42 in the Senate and 277-158 in the House during 1979-1980) had passed during the final years of Jimmy Carter's presidency.

This is reinforced in a 1992 New York Times item covering a government agreement to reopen over New York State-based cases involving over 200,000 claims (not kidding) involving 1980s disability denials, wherein the Times's Robert Pear chose to do a virtual victory dance in print -- and used a Bush 41 slogan to do it (bolds and numbered tags are mine):


Reversing one of the most widely criticized policies of the Reagan Administration [1], Federal officials have agreed to reopen tens of thousands of cases in which the Government denied benefits to people who said they could not work because of mental or physical disabilities.

... The settlement affects those who were denied benefits at any point in the 11 years since the Reagan Administration began a systematic campaign to purge the Social Security disability rolls. [1] Benefits are supposed to be paid to people who cannot engage in any "substantial gainful activity."

... The Administration said its campaign was required under a 1980 law and was essential to control the cost of the rapidly growing disability program. [2] The Government contended that many beneficiaries were able to work, even though courts later found that thousands were helpless because of severe physical or mental problems.

... If the settlement is approved, as lawyers on both sides are recommending, the Government will send out letters offering to re-examine the claims of more than 200,000 people in New York state who have been denied disability benefits since Oct. 1, 1981. [3]

By making substantial concessions in the proposed settlement, Federal officials will avoid a court order that could have been more burdensome and more embarrassing to the Government in this election year. President Bush and the Social Security Commissioner, Gwendolyn S. King, have repeatedly said their policies are "kinder and gentler" than those of the Reagan Administration. [4]

No other aspect of Mr. Reagan's social policy was so widely criticized by Federal judges, governors and members of Congress as his effort to remove people from the disability rolls, often in defiance of court rulings.

... In the past, Social Security officials often asserted that they were bound only by Supreme Court decisions and that they did not have to "acquiesce" in decisions of lower courts if such decisions contradicted their reading of the law. [5]

... Federal judges repeatedly denounced this policy as lawless. [6]

... That represents a big change from the defiant position [7] taken by the Government over the last decade. In 1989, for example, the Justice Department said the executive branch was not subordinate to the judicial branch and was not required to follow statements in circuit court opinions, which are "merely a weather vane, showing which way the wind is blowing." [7]


  • [1] -- As noted, it wasn't Reagan's policy, it was a policy implementation required by a 1980 Carter-Era law (Pear eventually admits that, as quietly as he can). Again, silly Reagan, doing what the Executive Branch is supposed to do -- execute the laws Congress passes.
  • [2] -- See, the law really was passed while Jimmy Carter was president. It's amazing how the "heartless" tag never got applied to him or the Democrat-dominated 96th Congress, isn't it?
  • [3] -- It seems likely that this action alone, applied countrywide, added hundreds of thousands to the disability roles who had not qualified under rules specified by (yes, I have to mention it again) the Democrat-dominated 96th Congress.
  • [4] -- Note the obligatory dig, by implication, at Reagan's allegedly unkind, rough administration.
  • [5] -- This may seem like an unreasonable position for Social Security to have taken, but it emphatically wasn't. Remember, each court ruling involving Social Security benefits was an individual matter and as such was meant only to apply to the individual involved in the matter. To have the results of a ruling apply to everyone, the proper post-ruling procedure would have been for Congress to enact a law applying the ruling to identical or very similar individual circumstances. This is no different from the problem, covered in more detail here, that almost everyone wishing to enforce their Communications Workers of America v. Beck rights in demanding that union dues for political purposes not be withheld must still bring an individual action and see it through the court system before the union has to give in. Why? Because Congress has never passed a law implementing the Beck opinion; only a very few states have done so. Until Congress does, individual litigation is the only available route for enforcing that particular Supreme Court decision. Instead of settling with the State of New York, the Bush administration, if it really wanted things to change, should have run a law through Congress to make those changes. Sadly, this is another example of those in charge taking the easy way out instead of following prescribed constitutional procedures.
  • [6] -- This only shows that federal judges have lost the proper understanding of their role, and of the constitutional enforceability of their individual rulings. The reason the judges could only denounce what Social Security did and not throw Social Security administrators in jail or hold them in contempt was because, as noted earlier, the courts have no enforcement powers over cases beyond those they have individually decided.
  • [7] -- The Justice Department's 1989 position may or may not have been "defiant," but it was definitely based on a proper reading of the Constitution's separation of powers.

The AP's Ohlemacher notes the fiscally disastrous results (bold is mine):

Applications are up nearly 50 percent over a decade ago as people with disabilities lose their jobs and can't find new ones in an economy that has shed nearly 7 million jobs.

... Claims for disability benefits typically increase in a bad economy because many disabled people get laid off and can't find a new job. This year, about 3.3 million people are expected to apply for federal disability benefits. That's 700,000 more than in 2008 and 1 million more than a decade ago.

"It's primarily economic desperation," Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue said in an interview. "People on the margins who get bad news in terms of a layoff and have no other place to go and they take a shot at disability" ...

So "disability" for many has devolved into a program for those who discover, once they stop working, that it might be better to find a way to continue not working. Critically, Ohlemacher fails to note another motivation: Getting onto Social Security's disability rolls is a gateway to other federal "entitlements" (food stamps, Section 8 housing, probably free cell phones, etc.).

But the AP writer nevertheless deserves some credit for setting straight just who passed a law trying to get the program under control, and who then got the grief for merely trying to do their job in carrying the law out. Now the chickens, as noted, are coming home to roost.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

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