Jobless are straining Social Security's disability benefits program

From foreclosure to food shortages, the economic downturn set in motion by the financial crisis of 2008 is having a broad and deeply-felt global impact.
Disabled worker benefit application
By Michael A. Fletcher Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; 3:24 AM

The number of former workers seeking Social Security disability benefits has spiked with the nation's economic problems, heightening concern that the jobless are expanding the program beyond its intended purpose of aiding the disabled.

Applications to the program soared by 21 percent, to 2.8 million, from 2008 to 2009, as the economy was seriously faltering.

The growth is the sharpest in the 54-year history of the program. It threatens the program's fiscal stability and adds to an administrative backlog that is slowing the flow of benefits to those who need them most.

Moreover, about 8 million workers were receiving disability benefits in June, an increase of 12.6 percent since the recession began in 2007, according to Social Security Administration statistics.

Though policymakers anticipated the program's rolls growing with the aging of the baby-boom population, they suspect the current surge has less to do with any worsening in the health of the workforce than with the poor health of the economy.

About half of all applicants eventually make it onto the disability rolls - a percentage that has not changed appreciably with the recent spike in applications, Social Security officials say. The average age of new recipients is 49 - and less than 1 percent of them return to work, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Social Security officials say they are confident that their vetting process screens out most people who might try to get benefits without being qualified. But, they acknowledge, when jobs are scarce, more workers who might otherwise struggle through with their ailments try to secure disability benefits.

In bad times, the disability rolls are swollen by "a lot of older workers who are very much on the margins. Often, they are the first people laid off," Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue said. "They can't find any new work and they are desperate. So they have every incentive to try and get in the program."

Applicants must endure a cumbersome process in which government claims examiners, administrative law judges and sometimes federal courts weigh whether they meet the program's standard of having a disability that prevents them from performing "substantial" work.

The vast majority of applicants turn to a network of lawyers and other advocates to help them fill out the bewildering forms, organize their medical histories and categorize their illnesses in a way that would increase the chances of getting aid.

If applicants are turned down, the counselors - who typically work on a contingency fee that is capped at $6,000 - represent them through the appeals process.

"A lot of people come to me when their unemployment benefits run out and they have no where else to turn," said Paul W. Nolan, a Baltimore lawyer who specializes in Social Security disability cases. "Many of them are on the border. Maybe in their last job, people were willing to work around their disability. But the economy is less forgiving of disabilities during a recession than when times are good."

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