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What would real reform for Social Security Disability look like?

The Social Security Disability program serves a real need for Americans. It provides income for those who have worked long enough to be eligible and meet the programs disability standards. The program is expensive because of the great need that exists, the many people it serves  and the lack of any alternative.

Congress has been unwilling to make the necessary adjustments to the funding formula that would assure the solvency of the current benefit level through the 2080s, so the system has been forced to operate under a near-crisis status for much of the last three decades.

There is much talk of reform, but much of it is little than a stealth way of discussing ultimately cutting benefits. What would real reform look like? For one, it would likely require greater participation by employers. That would create incentives for employers to work harder to both prevent workers from developing the type of injuries that can lead to work-ending disabilities and would allow individuals with some types of disabilities to continue working.

Some European nations have had success with disability reform programs like this, but such a change would not be easy, as the primary focus of the current SSD program is demonstrating the inability to work. The added complexity would be integrating thousands of employers into the program who would then have financial incentives to help workers with some residual functional ability to continue working.

Because this program would likely encompass more individuals than the 11 million who are currently within the system, because the vast majority within the program would remain unable to return to any type of work, no matter the level of special assistance available. 

Such a program would cost more and the Social Security Administration would likely need to grow in size to administer that additional complexity.

The program could provide more of a benefit to some individuals, by enabling to remain in the workforce, but it would take years to implement, as employers would need to agree to take on the additional duties and costs of participating in such a reformed system.


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