No, Social Security Benefits Aren’t Keeping Americans From Working

The focus on Social Security and other disability benefits is a misdirection from the real issues impacting today’s workers.
05/19/2017 12:36 pm ET Updated May 19, 2017

As part of their campaign to cut Social Security’s earned protections, anti-government ideologues often seek out problems which they claim can only be solved by cutting Social Security’s already modest benefits. One of their favorite mainstays is the claim that Social Security’s protections somehow disincentivize Americans from working, despite the fact that Social Security benefits are earned—through contributions made on income from work. Indeed, about three-quarters of Social Security disability beneficiaries are over the age of 50, and more than one-third are over 60. They’ve earned their benefits by paying into the system for decades.

A just-released brief from the Center for American Progress (CAP) shows, once again, that this claim has no basis in fact. The CAP brief addresses an often repeated and slanderous myth: that Social Security is responsible for declining labor force participation among working-age American men, who are supposedly choosing to collect extremely modest and difficult-to-obtain disability benefits as an alternative to wage income.

While the number of working-age men in the labor force has indeed declined over the past five decades, Social Security disability insurance and other government disability protections—Supplemental Security Income (SSI), veterans disability compensation, and workers compensation—have nothing to do with this decline. Indeed, CAP’s analysis shows that the percentage of men ages 30-49 who are receiving Social Security disability insurance and SSI benefits has actually declined from 1996 to 2015. Similarly, enrollment in workers compensation and veterans disability compensation have no discernable impact on male labor force participation.

Indeed, the focus on Social Security and other disability benefits is a misdirection from the real issues impacting today’s workers. As CAP’s experts note, stagnating wages, coupled with a reduced demand for low-skilled labor and a failure to invest in today’s workers through employment assistance and job training programs, play a much more significant role in declining labor force participation. (Of course, however, the right-wing billionaires who fund anti-Social Security propaganda would rather ignore the role of rising inequality and corporate greed.) Moreover, some men are choosing to leave the workforce in order to go to school or to take on caregiving duties, a practice which has more than doubled since 1996—hardly proof that today’s working-age adults are too lazy to work.

It should be no surprise that Social Security’s disability benefits are hardly the incentive to leave the workforce that conservatives make them out to be. Social Security benefits are extremely modest, particularly in the case of benefits given on the basis of a severe and work-ending disability. Indeed, the average benefit for a disabled worker is just over $14,000 in 2017—just a few thousand dollars over the poverty level. Even if, as conservatives claim, many of Social Security’s disability beneficiaries could actually work and simply choose not to, it is highly unlikely that they would be willing to forgo more substantial wage income in exchange for a benefit that is barely sufficient to meet basic costs of living.

Moreover, these benefits are extremely difficult to obtain. Social Security’s disability insurance has some of the strictest eligibility criteria in the developed world, and the process for obtaining benefits is long and difficult. Applicants have to prove, with extensive medical records and through multiple, lengthy rounds of review, that they have a disability that will last at least a year and that prevents them from performing any job—regardless of whether such jobs are available in their communities or whether employers are even likely to hire workers with disabilities. Because of the strict eligibility criteria and the lengthy approval process, only four in ten applications for Social Security disability benefits are ultimately approved. Indeed, many of those whose applications are denied never work again.

By targeting Social Security’s disability protections, anti-government ideologues, like Trump administration budget director Mick Mulvaney, show their hypocrisy and their true motive. It is worth noting that they generally do not propose to raise the minimum wage, create new work opportunities, or solve the real problems facing working Americans. Instead, they would destroy a critical protection that today’s workers depend on and have paid for. All Americans face the very real risk of becoming disabled during their working years—indeed, an estimated one in four of today’s 20-year-olds will experience a severe and work-ending disability before reaching their full retirement age. For many Americans, Social Security disability benefits—which are earned through contributions made on income from work—will be the most important, and quite possibly the only, protection against lost earnings in the event of a disability.

Instead of targeting Social Security’s vital, earned disability protections under the false pretense of encouraging labor force participation, policymakers should address the real problems facing working-age Americans today. Social Security and other disability protections are some of the last bastions of support that today’s workers still have—not the cause of their problems! Instead, their economic security—and their ability to remain in the workforce—is jeopardized by stagnating wages, growing inequality in incomes and wealth, and the rising costs of higher education, which has become essential to secure and maintain well-paying employment. These issues can, and should, be addressed by policies such as raising the minimum wage and investing in job training and employment assistance programs—not by cutting the Social Security protections Americans have earned and depend on.

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