Posts Tagged ‘SSDI’

Disability’s Digital Switch

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Up until recently, Peter Orszag was the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. As he leaves this job for a presumably more lucrative position with Citibank (no comment), he offers a final op ed piece in the New York Times on the subject of disability: specifically, the sharp rise in applications for SSDI benefits that has accompanied the collapse of the economy. Discouraged job seekers, many with obsolete or atrophied skills, try to qualify for a program that will take them out of the job market forever.
Currently, about 750,000 people apply for disability benefits every quarter, a rate 50 percent higher than that of four years ago. Orszag fears the consequences of burgeoning disability rolls: it’s not only expensive, it’s counter-productive. Once on disability, people rarely return to the workforce, even when jobs become plentiful. They “qualify” for benefits by proving themselves incapable of productive employment.
The fundamental question for SSDI is similar to the one faced by workers comp practitioners: once an individual qualifies for permanent benefits – usually a long, drawn out process – is there any way to encourage a return to work? Or is eligibility for disability, by definition, a self-fulfilling acknowledgement that employment is no longer a possibility?
The Digital Divide
Orszag speculates that the problem may lie in the rigid determination of disability: once disabled, always disabled. There is no middle ground where an individual’s limitations might be re-assessed periodically, where incentives for taking a job might encourage less dependence upon disability payments.
Orszag believes that we need some kind of interim program, less absolute in its determination of disability and less of a drag on public resources. He recommends privately funded, interim disability protection for non-work related disabilty (which would run parallel to the benefits already available through workers comp). The new program would last up to two years, during which both the employer and the worker would have strong incentives to return the disabled worker to productive employment. For workers who remain disabled at the end of the two years, application for SSDI would probably be in order. Under this model, the digital switch is made analog, with options and incentives all along the way. The cost? He estimates a relatively modest $250 per worker per year, assuming, of course, that all workers are included in the program.
Disability is indeed a conundrum: it requires people to prove that they are incapable of productive employment. The stage for this determination is strewn with detritus: the perverse incentive to prove one’s lack of ability; the ever-changing economy, which casually discards workers with obsolete skills without a hint of compassion; the notion that disability is a permanent state, which, once entered, precludes the possibility of growth and change.
All too often, disability intersects with the law of unintended consequences. By seeking to protect those who cannot protect themselves, we place people in the awkward position of proving their inability to function in the working world. There is very little incentive to do otherwise. We set disability up as a locked room, with no exit. We need to think of disabiility as a bridge, arcing out of the darkness toward new possibilities. While most who are disabled may never be able to cross this bridge, those who can must be given every opportunity to make the journey.