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Social Security overhaul’s impact on disabled is unclear

Critics say Bush’s plan could be costly for Americans with disabilities.
Tuesday, January 18, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:49 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 3, 2008

WASHINGTON — Social Security disability benefits may not be safe from the across-the-board cuts that are likely in President Bush’s proposal to allow personal investment accounts.

Retirement and disability benefits are calculated using the same formula, so if future promised retirement benefits are cut, then disability benefits also would be reduced — unless the program is somehow separated.

That also raises big questions about how investment accounts would be structured for disabled people, especially if they get injured at a young age or are dependent on a parent. Disabled beneficiaries typically work less and need benefits sooner, so the accounts might not provide enough income for them.

“The Social Security programs are insurance programs, not investment programs, designed to reduce risk from certain life events,” said Marty Ford of the Consortium for Citizens With Disabilities.

Currently, disabled workers move seamlessly through the Social Security system, often unaware they draw their benefits from the disability program until they reach retirement age and shift to the retirement program. That would change with investment accounts, advocates claim, with people falling through holes in a new system.

About 16 percent of the 47 million people receiving Social Security benefits are disabled workers and their dependents. The impact of accounts on beneficiaries who aren’t retirees hasn’t been publicly discussed by the Bush administration.

Supporters of Bush’s overhaul say that disability should be treated as a separate program.

“The proper way to deal with this is to essentially make it clear that these are two different programs and to separate the benefit formulas,” said David John, Social Security senior analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

But disability advocates argue that the two programs can’t be easily separated. Bush wants to let younger workers invest much of their 6.2 percent in payroll taxes into personal investment accounts, similar to a 401(k). Of the tax, nine-tenths of a percentage point funds disability benefits, while the remainder is for retirement benefits.

Almost three in 10 of today’s 20-year-olds will become disabled before reaching age 67, according to the Social Security Administration. About 72 percent of the private sector work force has no long-term disability insurance.

Advocates worry that some of the nation’s most vulnerable and needy people will be hurt by Bush’s plan to remake Social Security.

“Anything they do to the retiree formula will affect people with disabilities,” Ford said.


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