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First in a Hearing Series on Securing the Future of the Social Security Disability Insurance Program

December 02, 2011










December 2, 2011



Printed for the use of the Committee on Ways and Means


SAM JOHNSON, Texas, Chairman

RICK BERG, North Dakota


JON TRAUB, Staff Director
JANICE MAYS, Minority Staff Director





Stephen C. Goss
Chief Actuary, Social Security Administration

Virginia P. Reno
Vice President for Income Security Policy National Academy of Social Insurance

Andrew G. Biggs, Ph.D.
Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute



Friday, December 2, 2011
U.S. House of Representatives,
Committee on Ways and Means,
Washington, D.C.


The subcommittee met, pursuant to call, at 10:34 a.m., in Room B‑318, Rayburn House Office Building, Hon. Sam Johnson [chairman of the subcommittee] presiding.

[The  advisory of the hearing follows:]


Chairman Johnson.  This hearing will come to order. 

Good morning to all of you. 

The Social Security Disability Insurance program has been the source of great debate before and since its cash benefit program was signed into law in 1956 by then‑President Eisenhower. 

Soon after Social Security was established in law in 1935, serious discussion emerged whether to expand the program to workers who became permanently and totally disabled before age 65 and to their dependents.  While some urged action to establish these benefits, others were concerned about the subjectivity in determining whether a person was truly disabled. 

Not surprisingly, this debate came to a head in a post‑World War II society.  In the mid‑20th century, still living in a world created by the American industrial revolution, if the sole breadwinner was disabled, there were few options. 

The world in 1956 is a far cry from the world we live in today, where we are connected not just by highways but by bandwidth, where the Internet has redefined our idea of our local neighborhoods, where modern medicine has extended our lifespan well beyond anything conceived by our grandparents, and where technology has opened up opportunities that are as life‑altering as the Model T was in the beginning of the last century. 

I had a Model A.  I tried to get them to put that in there. 

The global economy has changed too.  Like Europe, we need foreigners to buy our debt in order to finance our government.  Today, 46 percent of our debt is held by investors outside the United States.  The debt crisis facing Europe, where bond buyers refuse to buy more debt, is forcing many in the European Union to make changes to their social benefit programs.  Greece and other European nations remind us of the price America will have to pay if we delay reform. 

Against this backdrop, the disability debate still rages on.  And, today, the Social Security Disability Insurance program pays benefits to individuals with a disability that meet certain medical criteria as long as they worked long enough and paid Social Security taxes. 

The continuing growth of the program is striking.  At a time when workers paying into the system has increased nearly 70 percent between 1970 and 2010, the number of people receiving disability benefits increased by almost 300 percent, from 2.6 million to nearly 10 million.  By 2020, the number of beneficiaries will continue to increase by 18 percent, to 11.8 million.  By then, total benefits paid will reach $188 billion.  That is a 52 percent increase over the $124 billion paid in benefits just last year. 

Experts tell us the program’s growth is due to the changing workforce, including the aging of the baby boomers, changes in disability policy, and the still struggling economy.  That continued growth is putting a massive strain on the Social Security Disability Insurance program. 

According to the 2011 Trustees Report, without congressional action, the Disability Insurance Trust Fund will be unable to pay full benefits beginning in 2018.  That is only 6 years from now.  The path we are on is unsustainable, and we are putting individuals with disabilities at risk if we don’t act soon. 

This subcommittee, through this hearing series, will lead a much‑needed conversation about the challenges facing this important program and solutions that can meet the needs of those with disabilities and workers who support the program through taxes on their hard‑earned wages. 

We begin today with an examination of the history of the Disability Insurance program, the income security it provides, and its financing challenges.  Through future hearings, we will explore the inner workings of the program, including vulnerabilities to fraud, the criteria used to determine benefit eligibility, how decisions are made in the appeals process, and the good thinking that is taking place about possible solutions. 

At a time when Washington doesn’t seem to be able to agree on much, I know that all the members of this subcommittee agree on the importance of coming together to ensure that this program stays strong for those who truly cannot work. 

I thank you again for being here. 

And I now recognize the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Social Security, Mr. Becerra, for his opening statement.  You are recognized for 5 minutes.

Mr. Becerra.  Mr. Chairman, thank you very much for calling this hearing. 

Today, nearly every working American and his or her family is protected against the devastating consequences of premature death, career‑ending disability, and insufficient retirement savings.  They have earned the protection; they paid for it.  It is called Social Security.  The benefits, they are basic.  Nobody gets rich from Social Security.  But they are reliable, and they are part of why America’s families in the middle class grew so strong. 

Today we are beginning a series of hearings focused specifically on Social Security Disability Insurance, or DI.  I am glad that we are because I believe in the program.  It is vital.  It provides irreplaceable economic security to those who have paid in but are no longer able to work through no fault of their own. 

At the same time, let’s be as honest as we are human.  There is always room for improvement.  And that, Mr. Chairman, is the operative word for these hearings, “improvement.” 

Are we here today as representatives of those American workers to strengthen Social Security’s DI program, to re‑enforce that can‑do optimism flowing through our own DNA?  Or are we signaling retreat ‑‑ retreat from the protections, retreat from the services and benefits Americans paid for? 

Without Social Security, about half of Americans who receive its benefits would be living in poverty.  This is particularly true for Americans who have become severely disabled and who often have families to care for. 

Remember, workers paid for their benefits.  Over its lifetime, Social Security has taken in $14.6 trillion and so far has only had to pay out to contributing Americans $12 trillion.  That is pretty good surplus. 

Let’s be clear.  It is not easy to qualify for disability benefits, and rightly so.  DI is usually only for people who have paid into the system ‑‑ not usually, it is only for people who have paid into the system.  And it is only available to those with the most severe impairments ‑‑ Americans who are dying or who genuinely can’t earn a living wage and whose disabilities are disabling for at least a year. 

When considering whether you can work, the Social Security Administration looks at whether you can do any job in the economy, even if it is not in your profession or pays a lot less than your old job or requires you to move to a different city.  In fact, most people with illnesses and disabilities do not receive DI benefits; only the sickest people do.  How sick?  About one in seven Americans dies within a few years of becoming eligible for benefits.  The benefits are not overly generous either, averaging about $13,000 a year. 

If you simply compare the number of people getting DI benefits 40 years ago to the number getting benefits today, it seems large, but that is a loaded way of looking at it.  A lot has changed in 4 decades. 

For starters, women have entered the workforce in large numbers.  In 1975, there were about 37 million women in the workforce; today, 72 million. 

Baby boomers ‑‑ we all know about the baby boomers.  I certainly do; I am one of them.  We are not at the age of eligibility for retirement benefits yet, but, more and more, my cohort is beginning to become disabled or ill.  A 50‑year‑old today is roughly twice as likely as a 40‑year‑old to be severely disabled, and a 60‑year‑old today is twice as likely to be disabled as that 50‑year‑old. 

In addition, we have had this great recession.  Some people who held a job in spite of very severe illnesses and disability have lost those jobs and have not been able to secure employment since. 

Once you take into account these demographic changes ‑‑ a larger workforce, an older population, more working women ‑‑ the rate at which newly disabled workers begin receiving benefits today compared to the working population is below what it was in the mid‑1970s. 

Having said all this, SSA needs to have enough people and technology to do a good job of managing the DI system.  Unfortunately, today SSA is operating under a budget that this Congress cut imprudently.  The result?  The number of disabled Americans awaiting a decision from SSA on their application for earned benefits is again on the rise, despite previous years of progress in reducing the backlogs.  Today, more than 1.5 million Americans are awaiting a decision on their application for benefits. 

Some Americans have lost their homes, their families, and even their lives waiting for the benefits they have earned.  An Army veteran in Maryland became homeless and in dire need of medical care because her hearing was not held.  A gentleman in Texas had to file for bankruptcy during the 6 years it took before he received the benefits he had earned. 

Mr. Chairman, we have a lot to do.  And there are a lot of good people who paid into the Social Security system.  For the smallest share of those Americans who are disabled, whose cancer, traumatic brain injury, or arthritis is so severe that they cannot work, we have a Social Security disability benefit ‑‑ benefits workers can pay for while working and count on when they can’t work. 

And for that reason, the operative word for these hearings really should be “improvement,” improvement of the Disability Insurance program. 

I yield back, Mr. Chairman.

Chairman Johnson.  The gentleman’s time has expired.  Thank you, Mr. Boomer. 

As is customary, any Member is welcome to submit a statement for the hearing record. 

Chairman Johnson.  Before we move on to our testimony today, I want to remind our witnesses to please limit their oral statement to 5 minutes.  However, without objection, all written testimony will be made a part of the hearing record. 

We have one panel today, and our witnesses who are seated at our table are:  Steve Goss, who is the chief actuary at the Social Security Administration ‑‑ thank you for being here; Virginia Reno, vice president for income security policy at the National Academy of Social Insurance; and Andrew Biggs, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Thank you all again. 

Mr. Goss, welcome, and you may proceed.


Mr. Goss.  Thank you very much, Chairman Johnson, Ranking Member Becerra, members of the committee.  It is a pleasure to be here, and thanks for the opportunity to come and talk to you today about the Social Security Disability Insurance program. 

I would like to talk to you about a couple of things today. 

First of all, as has been stated, the Social Security Disability Insurance program provides benefits to almost 9 million workers today, a total of 11 million beneficiaries, including their family members, to the tune of about $130 billion of expenditures ‑‑ essential benefits for people who have been found to be quite severely disabled and not able to work. 

It is clearly true that the administration of the Disability Insurance program, of any disability insurance program, is a challenge and is difficult.  It is not like a retirement program, where we know when you reach 62.  It is not like a life insurance program; we know when you die.  Disability insurance is inherently more difficult to administer.  And I am not here to be a cheerleader, but I would suggest that, in the years of experience I have seen, the Social Security Administration and the State disability determination services are doing a pretty good job of administering this program. 

There are lots of challenges, though.  I would like to talk to you about two things.  One is the actuarial status of the Disability Insurance Trust Fund, and the other is the drivers that have really driven the cost of the program to be what it is today. 

I have a slide, Figure 1 in the written testimony, which gives an illustration of what the trust fund levels are projected to be for the Social Security Disability Insurance program. 

As Chairman Johnson mentioned, we are projecting about 2018 will be the year at which the trust fund will become exhausted for the Disability Insurance program.  However, at that time, continuing tax income will still be sufficient to pay 86 percent of scheduled benefits.  And, more important, that percentage does not decline very much.  By the year 2085, we project we will still have enough tax income in to cover 83 percent of scheduled benefits.  So the program is on a sustainable course; it is just a little shy of funding. 

In order to fully finance the program, we would have to have as much as a 16 percent reduction in benefits over the next 75 years or a 20 percent increase in revenue or some combination of the two. 

This next slide, which is Figure 3 in the written testimony, puts in perspective what has happened with the Disability Insurance program.  And it is the first look at what the drivers of the cost of the Social Security program are.  We can break those into two kinds of drivers for the cost of the Social Security program. 

One is the basic demographic drivers, which we have all talked about.  We have heard mention of the baby boomers.  The baby boomers are coming up into our retirement system over the next 20 years.  But the real news to the Disability Insurance program is that they are already here.  The baby boomers have already had maximum impact as of today for the cost of the Social Security Disability Insurance program.  From 1990 to the year 2010, over that 20‑year period, the baby‑boom generation moved from ages 25 to 44, where not many people are disabled, to ages 45 to 64, where disability is highly prevalent.  So we have already moved into the worst of times in terms of disability problems.  The boomers are there. 

And, thereafter, you can see on this chart that the cost of the Social Security Disability Insurance program as a percentage of our gross domestic product is about level, in fact even declining slightly.  So we are at the peak of cost of Social Security now, and, actually, the cost goes down somewhat.  We are at a shortfall, so it is something that needs to be addressed, but at least it is not projected to be getting worse. 

So why is this?  Well, we know on the basic demographic driver of population, we have already reached the worst.  So where do we go from here?  The next driver that is really worth looking at that is more disability‑specific is one that is related to something that Mr. Becerra mentioned.  More women have been working over the last 20 years, but, more importantly, more women have been working consistently enough to be insured for benefits under the Disability Insurance program. 

And you can see on this chart, from 1970 to 2010, the percentage of women in our population who are insured for disability benefits should they become disabled has jumped from 35 percent to 70 percent.  It has doubled.  For men, the percentage has stayed about the same.  And, at this point, men and women are very close together, and, therefore, we do not expect a lot of change in the future.  We have had a massive increase in the number of women who are insured for disability.  Men have stayed about the same.  And, in the future, we expect this to be basically stable. 

A second driver that we can look at for the cost of the program that has had a lot of influence over time is, of course, becoming disabled.  If you are insured, the next step is, have you become disabled?  We look at the number of people who become disabled each and every year. 

You can see in this chart how up and down the numbers have been in the past, our percentage of people in the population that become disabled.  They bounce around quite a bit between 1975 and 2010.  But if you look at the line for the males, they have been around, 5 per 1,000 over the past 20 years, on average, and that is about what we project it will be in the future.  So we don’t expect a lot of change for the probability of becoming disabled amongst men. 

Women, however, used to be much less likely to become disabled at any given age than men, but they have moved up.  Just like with the insurance status, women have moved toward parity with men.  We are reaching a point where women and men are now similar.  And, going to the future, we expect stability on this too. 

We have a chart here that gives some explanations of why we have moved up and down so much in terms of the disability incidence rates or the probability of becoming disabled.  There are many factors:  economic recessions; changes in policy that we will be talking more about. 

But getting back to the basic drivers that have driven what has happened in the past, we have had the basic population, the tendency to become disabled, and the insured status, and when we put all those together, they explain a lot of why the female percentage of the population that is disabled, the probability of being disabled, has risen so much over the last 20 years.

Chairman Johnson.  Can you sum up? 

Mr. Goss.  Absolutely, yes.  Virtually done.  Thank you very much. 

One additional change has occurred, that explains why even males have increased their percentage of the population that is disabled over this time.  We have had a shift in our probability of becoming disabled toward younger ages for both men and women.  Hopefully that is something we can talk more about. 

These are the basic drivers that have driven the cost of Social Security up over the last 20 years.  And we expect that it will be relatively stable in the future.

Thank you very much.

[The statement of Mr. Goss follows:]

Chairman Johnson.  Thank you. 

We are facing a vote here in about 10 or 15 minutes.  And what we intend to do is go ahead with your testimony, and, should a vote be called, it will be a long one and we will not continue this hearing.  What we will do is ask our members to submit questions to you in writing, and hopefully you all will be able to answer them. 

Mr. Becerra.  And, Mr. Chairman, to clarify, we will go as long as we can before the votes are ‑‑

Chairman Johnson.  Yes, of course. 

Ms. Reno, welcome.  Please go ahead.


Ms. Reno.  Thank you.  Thank you, Chairman Johnson, Ranking Member Becerra, and other members of the committee.  I am delighted to have the chance to talk to you today about the Disability Insurance program. 

I will make the following points very quickly.  First, the growth in the program is due largely to demographics, and I will skip over that because Steve Goss has covered that very well.  Second, people who get the benefits rely very heavily on them, and, as a society, we need this protection.  Third, the eligibility rules for getting benefits are very strict, and they do not appear to have become more lenient over time.  Lastly, the program does appear to be affordable out into the long‑term future, as the actuarial projections show, if we are willing to pay for it.  And, yes, there is room for improvement. 

On the question, “do people need the benefits?”, benefits are an essential lifeline to those who receive them.  That is nearly 9 million Americans.  Nearly half of the people who get benefits rely on those benefits for almost all their income. 

The benefits, yet, are modest: an average of less than $13,000 a year for a disabled worker, which is a little more than the poverty threshold for one living alone.  For a disabled worker with eligible children, the average benefit is under $20,000 a year.  That is a little more than the poverty threshold for a family of three, but not much.  But the disability program helps account for the fact that Social Security lifts over 5 million working‑age people out of poverty. 

This is insurance that people pay for through premiums that come out of their paychecks.  And the fact that it is insurance is critically important.  People simply can’t save enough on their own to cover the risk of disability.  This is a risk that absolutely requires insurance, because few of us do become disabled but the results are devastating when it happens. 

This insurance is also most efficient if it is universal through Social Security.  We all need it and it is important to preserve this. 

On the eligibility rules, they are very strict:  inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of an impairment that, as determined by medical evidence, is expected to last at least a year or result in death.  “Substantial gainful activity” in this context means ability to earn a $1,000 a month or more. 

The test considers your capacity to do any work that exists in the national economy, not just work you have done before.  So this test is stricter than in private disability insurance systems, in most cases.  It is stricter than workers’ compensation and veterans’ compensation, which pay partial benefits for partial disabilities.  And it does require clear medical evidence to document the existence of the condition and the functional limitations imposed by that condition. 

As partial evidence of the strictness of the rules, we have looked at research over the years about what happens to people who are denied benefits.  A new RAND study issued just this year looked at people denied benefits and found that 20 to 30 percent of those who had been denied did engage in substantial gainful activity. 

What does this mean?  It means that, for that 20 or 30 percent, Social Security’s decision to deny the benefits was correct.  They can, in fact, work, according to the rules of the program.  But, at the same time, 70 to 80 percent of the people turned down for benefits did not go back to work.  This suggests that many people who have applied for benefits and are being denied do, nonetheless, have significant impediments to work.  This does not necessarily mean we should be liberalizing the rules, but it is simply a cautionary tale about the notion that the program is becoming too lenient. 

A blue‑ribbon panel of the National Academy of Social Insurance reviewed all past studies of the program of denied applicants for disability insurance benefits from 1964 to the 1990s.  It found that fewer than half of denied applicants later worked.  The nonworking denied applicants were generally poor; they relied mainly on income of other family members or limited welfare payments. 

So, to recap, the history of our DI outlays, as Steve Goss pointed out, shows that, by and large, the program is keeping up with our growing workforce and our aging workforce, as boomers are passing through their high disability years.  Clearly, people need the benefits, and, as a society, we need the protection.  The rules for getting benefits appear to be very strict.  The program is affordable and sustainable going forward if we are willing to pay for it.  And, yes, there is room for improvement.

[The statement of Ms. Reno follows:]

Chairman Johnson.  Thank you, ma’am. 

Dr. Biggs, you are recognized for 5 minutes.


Mr. Biggs.  Thank you very much. 

Chairman Johnson, Ranking Member Becerra, members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today with regard to the future of the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which pays benefits to almost 9 million disabled Americans and, perhaps more importantly, provides protection against disability to over 150 million workers. 

Much of the increase in Disability Insurance costs, as documented by Steve Goss, are attributable to the aging of the population, as individuals shift into the years in which they are most likely to become disabled.  But much of the cost increase is attributable to increases in disability over and above what an aging population would imply. 

These increases are puzzling, given that self‑reported disability rates recorded by the Census Bureau have remained roughly constant over the past 3 decades.  Given the aging of the population, these self‑reported disability rates, in which individuals report whether they suffer from a disability that impairs their ability to engage in work ‑‑ given the aging of the population, these self‑reported rates should have risen.  So we have a puzzle.  This implies that the age‑adjusted disability rates likely have fallen in terms of self‑reported rates ‑‑ the opposite of what we have seen in terms of program allowances. 

Lower self‑reported disability rates makes sense, though, when you consider higher incomes, improved technologies in health, and less physically demanding jobs.  Remember that in the past many Americans worked in factories, mills, and mines, which exacted a significant cost to their health.  If there is an upside to this shift to a service economy, it is that the health of workers should improve. 

Whatever the causes, the data seem to reflect improving health and lower self‑reported disability among working‑age Americans, and yet caseloads continue to increase.  The percentage of Americans with self‑reported disabilities who are in the workforce today dropped by almost half since 1980. 

The key to reform is incentives for employers to provide rehabilitation and accommodation rather than to shift disabled employees out of the workforce and onto the DI rolls.  Under current law, a disabled employee represents a cost to employers that can be eliminated if the employee goes on DI.  SSA, likewise, cannot provide re‑employment assistance until after an individual has been approved for DI, a process that can take years, during which time the worker’s skills and motivation decline.  At the crucial time in which a disabled worker might be helped to remain a worker, no one really has the incentive to do so. 

Proposed reforms are designed to give employers greater incentives to keep workers working.  Disability reforms passed in the Netherlands over the past decade or so have worked from this model and have helped reduce what was among the highest disability rates in the world to levels that are comparable to those in the United States. 

The lesson is that reform cannot think solely in terms of the program’s finances ‑‑ of finding a combination of tax rates and benefit levels that keep the system solvent over the long term.  A sustainable solution goes beyond simply saying “no” to DI applicants but finding ways to keep Americans with disabilities on the job and integrated into society. 

Thank you very much.

[The statement of Mr. Biggs follows:]

Chairman Johnson.  Thank you, sir.  I appreciate your testimony. 

I am not sure that we have time to go into questions.  I think we are voting. 

Mr. Becerra.  What if we agree to just, all of us, agree to just 2 or 3 minutes instead of 5?

Chairman Johnson.  That is okay with me.  Can you all agree to 2‑minute questions?  Ask one question?  We will try to do that. 

Thank you.  I appreciate you all being here. 

Mr. Goss, let me ask you, on page 1 of your testimony, you say the 3.6 percent cost‑of‑living adjustment for December 2011 was larger than expected and wages grew slower than expected, both of which may cause the trust fund reserves to exhaust earlier than is currently expected. 

Can you tell me how much earlier? 

Mr. Goss.  Yes, I think I can, Chairman Johnson.  Our projection in the 2011 Trustees Report was that we would be solvent, that we would still have trust fund assets in the DI program into 2018, but only just barely. 

The level of our trust fund assets was projected to be only 5 percent of annual program cost at the beginning of 2018.  So it doesn’t take much of a shortfall to bring us back into 2017.  And it looks as though the higher‑than‑expected cost‑of‑living adjustment, which provides higher benefits to all of our beneficiaries, would be sufficient in and of itself to bring us into 2017. 

I might also mention that OMB and CBO are both, at this point, projecting 2017 for the exhaustion date.  But, again, at that point, we would still have enough tax revenue coming in to pay 86 percent of benefits. 

Chairman Johnson.  Yes, there is not as much payroll tax going into that system these days. 

Mr. Becerra, you are recognized for 1 minute. 

Mr. Becerra.  Chairman, thank you very much.  And thank you for indulging us here. 

Mr. Goss, a question.  Dr. Biggs pointed out the issue of self‑reporting.  As an actuary, are you and those who work with you to come up with these estimates estimating that we are going to see a drop in the number of people who are classifiable as disabled over the years as the baby‑boom generation ages into that range? 

Mr. Goss.  Well, we are not really projecting that.  And I am sure that Dr. Biggs would agree, self‑reporting is a tricky issue, especially when you are looking over a period of decades.  The way people view disability and whether or not you are disabled can change at a societal level over periods of time. 

When we look at the disability incidence rates that we were talking about before, the probability of becoming disabled, we have seen that it has been really quite stable for men on an age‑ and sex‑adjusted basis over time.  And for women, the rates of becoming disabled have risen quite substantially, but only just up to about the level of men. 

So we feel fairly confident that, given that men have been pretty stable for a long period of time in their tendency to become disabled and women, who used to have a much lower tendency, have moved up to be similar to men in their likelihood of becoming disabled, that they will probably continue to be marching at about the same rates into the future.  And we are not expecting surprises. 

Mr. Becerra.  Thank you very much. 

I yield back, Mr. Chairman. 

Chairman Johnson.  Thank you. 

Mr. Schock, you are recognized. 

Mr. Schock.  I will yield back. 

Chairman Johnson.  One minute? 

Mr. Schock.  No, I am good. 

Chairman Johnson.  Are you? 

Mr. Schock.  Yep.

Chairman Johnson.  You don’t question the disability system at all? 

Mr. Schock.  I got so many questions that ‑‑

Chairman Johnson.  Okay ‑‑

Mr. Schock.  Why don’t we start with ‑‑

Chairman Johnson.  Wait a minute.  Are you going to ask a question now? 

Mr. Schock.  Well, I mean, with 1 minute, I will just yield.  I needed 20 minutes. 

Chairman Johnson.  Mr. Marchant, can you question? 

Mr. Marchant.  Mr. Biggs, in your testimony, you say that disability is a subjective condition and that government isn’t good at making subjective judgments, leaving room for discretion, error, and variability.  What do you mean by this? 

Mr. Biggs.  Well, disability covers a range of infirmities that can go from a slight impairment of your ability to work to a total impairment.  And, ultimately, Congress has to decide where on that spectrum they are going to draw the line and say that people on one side of that line are going to qualify for benefits and people on the other side of the line are not going to qualify for benefits.  So it is a subjective judgment, where to draw that line.  And, obviously, opinions can differ with that. 

One of the difficulties, though, is in applying this in practice, that we see variability in acceptance rates from examiner to examiner.  So it means that, even given the rules set down by Congress, there is subjectivity in terms who is accepted and who is denied.  I don’t think you can get rid of that.  It is just the nature of what we are looking at. 

But one of the points I make in my written testimony is that Congress has to be very aware that it is the ones that makes the decisions.  The Congress has been elected to decide how we are going to run this program.  And so it should try to be as concise and specific as it can be in laying out the criteria by which people will be accepted for DI benefits so that we are not simply passing that off to SSA or to examiners or to ALJs, because I think that is not their job.  And so I think Congress should give them as much specific guidance as they can based on the values and judgments that it comes to in terms of where we draw that line. 

Mr. Marchant.  Thank you. 

Chairman Johnson.  Mr. Schock, you may question. 

Mr. Schock.  I have a question for any of the three panelists.  I am curious if any of you have studied the effect of claims for disability benefits based on economic conditions.  In other words, when there is higher rates of unemployment, more joblessness, you could speculate that perhaps more people decide that they are unemployable because of a disability. 

Mr. Goss.  Well, we certainly have seen with the most recent recession, which started in 2008 and reached the bottom of the recession in mid‑2009, a significant increase in the number of claims for disability for both the Title II DI program and for the Title XVI, as you might expect. 

There are a substantial number of people in our population who have medically determinable impairments, and many of these people, through force of will, through just being very, very determined, work anyway.  But, clearly, the nature of the program is such that people who are in that position have very strong medically determinable impairments.  If they lose their job, they will have a greater opportunity than somebody who does not have a medically determinable impairment to come and apply for benefits and perhaps get them. 

The other thing that I think is really important to keep in mind about the Disability Insurance program and medically determinable impairments is that most of these impairments are things that do progress over time.  If a person has a medically determinable impairment to a certain degree, which, as Dr. Biggs indicates, may not cross the threshold of qualifying for disability, a year or 2 later it may, in fact, cross that threshold.  That is probably why through the determination process sometimes people get allowed a year or 2 after they first apply when they were not allowed initially. 

But, certainly, at a time of recession ‑‑ and on some of the charts we have, we show this ‑‑ the number of people who file for disability benefits and end up getting benefits clearly rises.  This is in large part just because when employment is good, when employers are trying to employ lots of people, people with impairments and everybody else find it relatively easy to get a job.  When we hit a strong recession, as we have now unfortunately, with lots of people out of work, people will still look for a way to put bread on the table.  And Social Security disability benefits are available for those who would qualify. 

But I would hasten to say that I do not think that anybody would suggest that the criteria used at Social Security, at the DDS examiners, and elsewhere is modified at all at time of recession.  It is really just a matter of having more people apply who would qualify in any case. 

Mr. Schock.  So is it your estimation that the same criteria is used to determine whether or not they qualify, but those who wish to apply goes up because they are out of work?

Mr. Goss.  Exactly.

Mr. Schock.  Is this one form of receiving assistance? 

Mr. Goss.  I would suggest, I think it is clear that everybody in our population ‑‑ the United States has a very strong work ethic if we compare ourselves to many other countries, especially on the other side of the Atlantic.  And given that strong work ethic, virtually everybody in this country, given the opportunity for a good‑paying job versus taking benefits from Social Security, will take the good‑paying job.  So ‑‑

Mr. Schock.  I agree. 

Mr. Goss.  ‑‑ people who really find their ways onto the disability rolls, I think, in general, as Virginia Reno indicated, are people who really are having a very hard time finding a job, and for a very good reason:  because they qualify with a medically determinable impairment for ‑‑

Chairman Johnson. Thank you for your testimony.

Mr. Schock.  So I am hearing you say you don’t think Americans are lazy?

Mr. Goss.  I would concur with that completely.

Mr. Schock.  I agree.  Thanks.

Chairman Johnson.  Thank you all for bearing with us.  We are in a little bit of a time compression today.  And thank you for your testimony. 

And the Members will have some time to write questions, if you all will answer them. 

Chairman Johnson.  And so I thank you for being here, and I look forward to working with you and our colleagues as we continue to examine the challenges facing this program and solutions. 

With that, the committee stands adjourned.

[Whereupon, at 11:12 a.m., the subcommittee was adjourned.]

Member Opening Statements

The Honorable Sam Johnson
The Honorable Xavier Becerra

Public Submissions For The Record

Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities
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