Editor’s note: Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, is the author of this guest commentary.
More than 140,000 Arkansans rely on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), a program intended to provide a safety net to workers who develop a serious, long-term disability. This program plays a large role in Arkansas as we have the third highest percent of working age population on SSDI, behind only Alabama and West Virginia.
While SSDI is an important program that can provide last resort relief to the truly disabled, the program is in trouble. Since 2009, SSDI has paid out $155 billion more than it has taken in, and the SSDI trust fund is on a path to run out next year. Unless Congress acts, every Arkansan receiving SSDI benefits will see a 19% cut in benefits. This will mean the average beneficiary will receive $230 less per month, moving from barely above to below the poverty line.
Another challenge is that the SSDI program no longer helps the temporary disabled return to work. SSDI doesn’t require applicants to be permanently disabled to enter the program – only to have a disability lasting longer than one year.
However, despite accepting applicants with temporary disabilities, the program does little to help beneficiaries return to work. In the 1980s, the program returned as many as 5% of all beneficiaries in a given year to the workforce. Today, it’s less than one-half of one percent.
Last year, fewer than 400 Arkansans who received SSDI successfully returned to the workforce.
Something has to change. We must reform SSDI so the program better serves the temporarily disabled by ensuring they recover and return to work.
Helping those who can work get back to work will not only help those people reach their full potential through dignity of work, it will also improve the solvency of the program.
How can we accomplish this goal?
First, we need to shift SSDI from being one-size-fits-all to a smarter approach that differentiates between the permanently disabled and those who, with medical treatment and rehabilitation services, can recover. SSDI serves individuals with a wide array of disabilities and it is time for the agency to stop treating them all the same. Social Security needs to identify people who, with medical treatment and rehabilitative services, could recover.
Second, for the individuals who can recover, Social Security needs to help provide referrals to rehabilitative and work opportunity services. There are countless services offered by different federal agencies and non-profit organizations. These services can help the temporarily disabled prepare for a return to the workforce.
Finally, Social Security needs to set timelines for those who are temporarily recovered to return to work. The current system of effectively giving all beneficiaries lifetime benefits – regardless of recovery is possible in as short as a year – has bankrupted the system. Even more importantly, it has kept millions of Americans out of the workforce.
Our goal should be to help the temporarily disabled return to work and preserve SSDI benefits for our most vulnerable citizens. In the coming months, I will work to introduce legislation that protects the integrity of this important program.
Rest assured, I will work with my colleagues in the Congress, the Social Security Administration, and beneficiaries to ensure the long-term solvency of the program.