Julie Turkewitz and Juliet Linderman have a piece in today's New York Times Opinion section calling for more work incentives in the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability program. They believe that there are many SSI disability recipients who would like to go back to work but who are trapped because of a lack of work incentives in the SSI program.
Turkewitz and Linderman are wrong. We have an incredible assortment of work incentives in the larger non-needs based Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) run by Social Security. These work incentives have not caused any significant number of DIB recipients to return to work. SSI disability recipients are, on the whole, far more hopeless candidates to return to work than DIB recipients since they are people who had little or no work history before going on SSI disability benefits to begin with. At least DIB recipients worked regularly in the years leading up to going on disability benefits. You're never going to return many SSI disability benefits recipients to return to work. They're too sick and too many of them have diminished cognitive abilities and chronic mental illness for this to be realistic.
I have serious questions about the person that Turkewitz and Linderman use as their poster child, Brad Crelia. Why is it that he never earned enough money to get DIB? Apparently, he did work a fair amount in the past. Why doesn't he just get a regular job now and give up SSI? According to Turkewitz and Linderman that's what he wants to do. What's holding him back? Is it really a lack of work incentives? He'd certainly have more income if he went to work. Exactly what work incentive does he need to return to work anyway. The piece says at one point that Crelia dropped out of college because he was too sick to continue but at another point says that Social Security should have given him a loan so he could finish college. Which is it? If he was too sick to continue his education, a loan wasn't going to help. If a loan was all he needed, why did he need Social Security to give him the loan? It's possible to get educational loans whether you're disabled or not. Crelia's story doesn't make much sense.
Members of Congress like to think that it would be possible to significantly reduce the money spent on disability benefits by providing additional work incentives. They keep enacting one work incentive after another thinking that just one more piece of legislation will do the trick and disabled people will flow back to work. The result is an extraordinarily complex system of work incentives that don't work. Social Security employees don't understand them so how can we expect disability benefits recipients to understand them? Even if they did understand them, the disability recipients wouldn't go back to work for a simple reason. It's so damned difficult to get on Social Security disability benefits that very few people who get on benefits have any realistic hope of ever returning to regular work. They're way too sick.