Whenever the subject of the federal “deficit” or the federal “debt” comes up in these hopey changey times, there is often the sober and serious assessment by Congressional types, and the pundit class, that “entitlements” are going to have to be put on the table, and the 800 pound gorilla in the room is always Social Security. The political football that is Social Security “entitlements” often is batted back and forth in terms of the traditional understanding of Social Security benefits: Old Age Pensions. Much moaning and groaning is emitted over what to do about “our seniors”, people who have worked all their lives and paid into Social Security all their lives.
Well, yes. Even though Social Security reformists always make the point that there is no consideration being given to rescinding benefits for those at or nearing retirement age, there is a natural tendency among that demographic to worry about loss of benefits. And even more, there is anger over the matter of what happened to or how was the Social Security Trust Fund managed for lo these past 75 years? Well, that’s a whole nother story. What concerns us today is how the discussion of the finances surrounding social security never gets around to the question of those “other categories” of Social Security disbursements – Social Security Disability payments and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments.
Total Social Security payments for Fiscal Year 2010 were $739.6 billion. Of that total, $574.2 billion was in the form of Old Age and Survivors Insurance, or OASI payments, $121.6 billion was disbursed to ‘disabled’ recipients and $43.8 billion went to SSI payees. Doing the math, one can readily see that fully 22% of all Social Security payments did not go to retirees. They went to children and dependents and those claiming disabilities. And we did not break out separately the “survivor” portion of the OASI disbursements. The eligibility requirements for these “other” Social Security payments, in terms of how long a recipient, or those claiming benefits as a condition of being related to a recipient, had to have actually worked in their lives, are explained at www.ssa.gov . Needless to say, many worked very little and many worked not at all.
We have heard absolutely no discussion in the “How to Fix Social Security” debate, about curtailing the benefits or revising the eligibility requirements for these recipients. None. We have heard of creating opt in/opt out schemes, privatization schemes, raising the retirement age and so forth for working people. But, and we will be accused of painting with a broad brush here, we have heard nothing about tightening the till for the cases where, for example, a ‘single mother’ who claims disability benefits because she has been diagnosed as bi-polar, and may also receive benefits for her children, all the while having all of the healthcare costs of her and her children paid for by medicaid, plus receiving food stamps, plus her children receiving free meals at school, plus availing herself of local and regional federally-granted ‘food banks’ where no questions are asked (and one wonders why the ‘poor’ are disproportionately overweight), plus receiving Section 8 or other rent assistance programs, plus filing tax returns when no taxes are owed in order to receive credits amounting to tax refund payments, plus receiving Pell Grants to attend local junior colleges or vocational schools to get skills they will never use because they are on disability or SSI. And we are sure we have left out much more.
Now, no one wants to see a genuinely disabled person lose benefits, or children of people who have paid into the system truly be hurt, but that is not the point here. The point is that the system was originally designed for the elderly. It has always been regarded as a compact with our seniors, and as a means of preparing for the time when society would need to step up and assist them, enabled by the contributions they themselves made their entire lives.
It appears that this is not your father’s Social Security program anymore, and hasn’t been since Social Security was revamped in the Seventies. (God, how our nation slipped in the Seventies). Even considering that the SSI portion is funded from the general Treasury rather than the normal FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act) payroll taxes, it is still paid for by working people, and by employers.
We do not claim to have all the answers on “entitlements”. But we are pretty sure that all of the questions are not being asked.