×

The Social Security disability fund is disabled

In Washington, budget deficits stretch out as far as the eye can see. They could be closed by some combination of spending cuts and tax increases. But this Congress, like those before it and, sadly, most likely those that will follow, cannot agree on such matters.

So, borrowing a page from dystopian literature, I would like to suggest that Washington admit this new reality by creating another accounting system. It will be called YTC for short, and stands for Years to Collapse.

Instead of meaningful discussion and, yes, actual adoption of needed fiscal changes, the federal government instead will focus on how long it can wait to act before a calamitous outcome occurs.

It's clear we are already governing in this manner. Our crumbling physical infrastructure—roads, bridges, navigable waterways and the like—will be allowed to continue deteriorating until its YTC reading has reached crisis state.

Ditto for reining in our enormous contribution to global warming, dealing with growing water shortages, the national obesity epidemic, a health care system that people in other countries cannot comprehend, and any number of other issues that have been more or less accepted as beyond our means and will to address.

Unable to govern, we comfort ourselves by saying that the YTCs of these serious needs are usually large numbers. Collapse of the fiscal and physical varieties are years and years away. Of course, they're not, but the conceit of such a forward-looking process is that we've misled ourselves into thinking they are. "Hey, I survived Katrina or Sandy or some drought or bridge collapse. So can you!"

YTC, of course, is also known as buying some time, kicking the can down the road, and other names.

In the case of the Social Security Disability Insurance program (SSDI), we have nearly run out of time to kick the can any longer. The program's YTC is exactly ONE, as in the fund will run out of surplus funds at the end of next year and will then be able to pay only 81 cents of every dollar of benefits it has promised.

Now, you may wonder why I would even talk about Social Security disability insurance in the same breath as global warming or a crumbling infrastructure. I, on the other hand, am amazed that the program's plight is not the stuff of major news stories every day.

Social Security disability insurance is, after all, a story about the impending collapse of an enormous human infrastructure program. More than 11 million disabled workers and their family members received SSDI payments last year. The average monthly benefit is about $1,150. In families where other family members also qualified for benefits, the average family benefit at the end of 2013 was $1,973 a month. In nearly all SSDI households, these payments are crucial to putting food on the table and keeping a roof overhead.

Now, I'm sure that some of these 11 million people are not really disabled and that they are gaming the system. But I also am sure they represent a very small percentage of SSDI recipients. In terms of people that society needs to help, most of these 11 million folks deserve to be at the top of the list.

Keep in mind that people need to have worked, often for many years, to even qualify for Social Security disability insurance. With very few exceptions, these are not society's deadbeats. These are the good guys—the men and women who have earned livings and need our help when they can no longer do so. If you think $1,150 a month is some kind of prince's ransom, well, you try to live on it.

Washington has known about the impending collapse of the SSDI program for years and years. It has talked a lot but done nothing.

Some people, primarily Democrats, want to kick the can down the road some more by simply siphoning money into the SSDI fund from its larger sibling, the Social Security Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Fund. This is the fund that pays Social Security retirement and survivor benefits and the fund isn't scheduled for its own collapse until 2035. That's a YTC of 20! No reason to panic, right? Even with the transfusion, its collapse will still be an easy-to-overlook 19 years away.

Other people, primarily Republicans, want to step up back-to-work programs, tighten eligibility, and, in so many words, weed the SSDI rolls of undeserving people. They don't call it that, of course, but it's tough to read between the lines of their proposals and come to any other conclusion.

Of course we need to do better. Will we?

Journalist Phil Moeller is co-author of the New York Times bestseller, "Get What's Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security." Follow him on Twitter @PhilMoeller.