The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program is set to be the next big battle in Republicans’ long campaign to dismantle Social Security. Congressional Republicans are trying to block a routine reallocation of funds to the SSDI Trust Fund, insisting that they will only allow reallocation if “reforms” to SSDI are implemented. The intellectual underpinning for their demands is that there is an unfolding fiscal crisis caused by workers who are able to earn a living but are instead choosing to claim disability benefits. A chief proponent of this view, Stanford economist Mark Duggan, testified before the Senate Budget Committee earlier this year, claiming that disability benefits are increasingly attractive to lower-wage workers, who respond by leaving the labor force. According to Duggan, a key piece of evidence supporting this claim is an increase in the share of beneficiaries suffering from musculoskeletal disorders and other “subjective” health conditions who have a “substantial” employment potential.
Claims like these have become a mainstay of attacks on the disability program. However, a closer look at the evidence shows that SSDI benefits have become, if anything, less generous. Moreover, even research cited by critics shows SSDI receipt has a negligible impact on work effort because few applicants, including marginal applicants who were denied benefits, are able to earn a living afterward. Meanwhile, there are good explanations for the increase in the share of beneficiaries suffering from musculoskeletal disorders, including an aging population, rising obesity rates, and fewer workers able to retire early when their health deteriorates.
-Economic Policy Institute