September 22, 2020

Disabled, but Looking for Work

Though he has been collecting disability checks for three years, Mr. Howard, who is just 36, desperately wants to work, recalling dredging for gravel rather fondly and repairing cell towers less fondly.

“It makes me feel like I am doing something,” said Mr. Howard, a burly man with a honey-colored goatee. “Instead of just being a bum, pretty much.”

Programs intended to steer people with more moderate disabilities back into jobs have managed to take only a small sliver of beneficiaries off the Social Security rolls.

Yet, at a time when employers are struggling to create spots for the 13.5 million people actively looking for jobs, helping people like Mr. Howard find employment — or keeping them working in the first place — is becoming increasingly important to the nation’s fiscal health.

For the last five years, Social Security has paid out more in benefits to disabled workers than it has taken in from payroll taxes. Government actuaries forecast that the disability trust fund will run out of money by 2018.

About 8.2 million people collected disabled worker benefits totaling $115 billion last year, up from 5 million a decade earlier. About one in 21 Americans from age 25 to 64 receive the benefit, according to an analysis of Social Security data by Prof. Mark G. Duggan, an economist at the University of Maryland, compared with one in 30 a little over a decade ago. In Mr. Howard’s home state of Arkansas, the figure is one in 12, among the highest in the nation.

Along with monthly checks that are based on the worker’s earnings history, beneficiaries generally qualify for Medicare — otherwise reserved for those over 65 — two years after being admitted to the disability rolls.

There are several reasons for the increase in beneficiaries. Baby boomers are hitting the age when health starts to deteriorate, and more people are claiming back and other muscular-skeletal ailments and mental illnesses than claimed those as disabilities a generation ago. Lawyers who solicit clients on television and on the Internet probably play a role. And administrative law judges say pressure to process cases sometimes leads to more disability claims being accepted.

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.

The program was designed to help workers who are “permanently and totally disabled,” and administration officials say that it is an important lifeline for many people who simply cannot work at all.

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? Social Security officials say relatively few.

Nicole Maestas, an economist at the Rand Corporation, has examined Social Security data with fellow economist Kathleen J. Mullen, and concluded that in the absence of benefits, about 18 percent of recipients could work and earn at least $12,000 a year, the threshold at which benefits are suspended.

Other economists say that even among those denied benefits, a majority fail to go back to work, in part because of medical problems and a lack of marketable skills.

“In an atmosphere in which there is a concern about fiscal problems, it’s always easy to point the finger at groups and say, ‘These people should be working,’ ” said Prof. John Bound, an economist at the University of Michigan, “exaggerating the degree to which the disability insurance program is broken.”

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. And because many people spend years appealing denials and building their medical case before being granted benefits, their skills often atrophy and gaps open on their résumés, making it more difficult for them to get back to work.

Beneficiaries, who also fear losing health care coverage, may view their checks as birds in the hand. “Even if you’re taking just $800 or $900 a month, that’s better than nothing,” said Bruce Growick, an associate professor of rehabilitation services at Ohio State University.

Shortly after Mr. Howard’s benefit checks started arriving, he received a four-by-six-inch card from Social Security informing him of services to help him return to work. Confused by the bureaucratic language and fearing the loss of medical coverage, he discarded it. When he called the local office, he said a staff member did not seem to know what his rights were or what help was available.

“I thought it is just better to get what we are getting,” he said.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/07/business/economy/07disabled.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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