Apr. 28, 2006 – Advocates for low-income Americans and people with disabilities are calling on the federal government to drop a proposed change to Social Security that would force some people now qualifying for benefits to wait two more years before receiving aid.
They say the change is nothing more than an attempt to "slash the disability rolls" while increasing hardship for some of America's most vulnerable.
Critics also say the proposal would disproportionately affect people of color, especially blacks who experience higher rates of disability and have a harder time finding employment.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) rule-change proposal, published in the Federal Register last November, would make several different categories of people qualifying for disability benefits wait two more years for payments to start. Because Medicare and Medicaid eligibility are based on Social Security qualifications, individuals would have to postpone receipt of those healthcare benefits too.
Bryan Blackwell, a lawyer who represents Social Security claimants in Dothan, Alabama, said the wide variety of health problems that his clients have would make it difficult for them to continue working.
"You have people who have been injured on the job and who may have received a little money from workersâ€™ [compensation], but thatâ€™s either run out or fixing to run out," Blackwell explained to The NewStandard. "Maybe they get a small check, but it doesnâ€™t come out to what they were earning previously. And you know people like that sometimes have to file for disability."
Critics say the proposal would disproportionately affect people of color, especially blacks who experience higher rates of disability and have a harder time finding employment.
Likewise, attorney Donald Bishop said some of the clients he has represented in rural North Arkansas and the Ozark Mountains have been employed since their teens in back-breaking work in the timber industry and masonry.
â€œSeveral of my clients have done such arduous work and have arthritic backs, only a seventh-grade or less education, and can barely stand mostly upright for six hours,â€� wrote Bishop in his public comments to the SSA in response to its rule-change notice. â€œPersons like these hard workers are the most obvious persons to be harmed by this proposed rule change.â€�
If the changes go through, clients like those described by Bishop and Blackwell would have to continue working or find some other source of income until they reach the new age requirements. The SSA wants to raise the age limit for their category of "younger individual" from 50 to 52, meaning that most people below that age are considered to have an ability to adjust to other work, despite the onset of a work-related disability. The proposal would also increase by two years the eligibility age for individuals who are considered illiterate or unable to communicate in English, from 45 to 47. Other groups would be affected as well.
Calling the rule changeâ€™s consequences a "minimal increase," the agency said they are justified because of "clear and overwhelming evidence that the average health of the elderly population is improving," thus increasing their ability to work longer.
Some policy analysts say the justifications used by the SSA are illogical, failing to take into account federal data that indicates decreasing opportunities for people with disabilities.
But critics donâ€™t agree the change is minimal, especially for those who suffer on-the-job injuries. "Two years is an awfully long time to wait if you have acquired a disability after working in a grueling or dangerous occupation all of your life and you have no other job skills to speak of," said Arloc Sherman, senior researcher at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a progressive think tank. "That is generally the situation that weâ€™re talking about with [this] proposal."
Some policy analysts, including Sherman, who co-authored a recent CBPP report on the rule-change proposal, say the justifications used by the SSA are illogical, failing to take into account federal data that indicates decreasing opportunities for people with disabilities.
"Our sense is that there isnâ€™t firm research grounding this regulatory proposal, and it would behoove SSA to look closely at what research there is before trying to move forward," said Sherman.
Part of the SSAâ€™s five-step "grid" for determining disability eligibility is that applicants must be unable to return to their previous jobs because of their injuries, and other job choices must be limited due to lack of skills or education. But in the new rule proposal, the SSA states that "economic and social changes have â€¦ increased opportunities for individuals with disabilities to participate in the workforce" and that "there are many jobs that individuals, despite their age, are capable of performing and adjusting to, even though they have not done those jobs previously."
However, according to a CBPP analysis of the Census Bureauâ€™s Current Population Survey, between 1988 and 2004, the number of people with self-reported disabilities who had jobs dropped from 22 to 17 percent, in contrast to a slightly rising employment rate for all adults.
The SSAâ€™s proposal also neglects to examine how the rule change would affect communities of color, which generally have higher rates of disabilities, lower incomes and inferior health care. According to a CBPP analysis of the Current Population Survey, blacks make up 22 percent of 45-61 year olds who receive Social Security Insurance or Social Security disability payments, but they only account for 11 percent of all Americans in this demographic. CBPP also found that the same group of blacks with work-limiting disabilities have an employment rate that is less than two-thirds of all similarly disabled Americans.
Dr. Henrie Treadwell, senior social scientist at the Atlanta-based National Center for Primary Care, said the proposal will impact many black men especially. Those caught in a cycle of jail or prison, followed by homelessness, and who have often worked in more hazardous jobs because of their economic and education status, are particularly vulnerable.
"With the rule change they must remain homeless longer, go without any Medicare services longer, and in general continue to be marginalized by the very systems that are purported to protect Americans," Treadwell said.
Ethel Zelenske, director of government affairs for the National Organization of Social Security Claimantâ€™s Representatives, a membership group of lawyers and disability-rights advocates, agrees that the problem with the SSAâ€™s proposed rule is the detrimental impact on individuals with the most adverse vocational attributes: a low education, low income, and low skills.
While the SSA cites a drop in the number of physically demanding jobs available, Zelenske said the problem lies in this shift to white-collar jobs, "which donâ€™t necessary benefit people who have lower education levels and few skills and lack the ability to perform those jobs."
The agency also estimated that the rule change would save the federal government $5.8 billion dollars over the next ten years, leading some groups to believe the motivation behind the rule change is monetary. In its public comments to the SSA, Philadelphiaâ€™s Community Legal Services, an organization providing representation to low-income people, accused the agency of trying to save federal spending "by defining disability in an even more restrictive manner than currently."
They also pointed out that increased life span has nothing to do with the available jobs or occupations for older people with work limitations.
"That others in society may be in better health, may live longer, and may be able to perform more activities on a regular basis [has] no impact on whether a 51-year-old individual with less than a high-school education [and] who is limited to sedentary work is â€˜disabledâ€™ within the meaning of the Social Security Act," wrote Richard Weishaupt and John Whitelaw, two attorneys for the group.
SSA officials did not grant TNSâ€™s request for a response to criticisms of the rule-change proposal, but instead wrote in an e-mail that they will "consider and evaluate" all comments that were received and "any changes made will be reflected in the final rule."
But critics, including NOSSCRâ€™s Zelenske, want the proposal rescinded completely. She said waiting two more years for disability benefits could harm too many people.
"Theyâ€™ve tried to work, often to their detrimentâ€¦ and some people keep trying to work and make themselves sicker by doing that," Zelenske said. "But by the time they come in and apply for disability benefits, generally they have exhausted everything else thatâ€™s out there."