Disability-Friendly Budget Cuts

Currently, the debt ceiling and potential budget cuts for 2012 are arguably the most debated topics in U.S. politics. Other contributors to this blog have already discussed in detail the consequences that budget cuts could have on children’s schooling, academic research and education, and foreign aid.  Shaunak, a fellow Program and Research intern with the SISGI group, pointed out in “Invest in the Future”, that cutting spending on social programs is not a popular move among politicians, as it jeopardizes their chances of garnering support from their constituents. Yet, with the quickly approaching debt ceiling debate deadline on August 2nd, many groups who benefit from Social Security, Medicaid, or Medicare are growing concerned that funds will be reduced for those who need them the most, including the elderly and persons with disabilities (PWDs). In the long-run, the issue is not only whether a bipartisan consensus can be reached that retains the social safety net and establishes a fiscally responsible budget, but also whether these changes will remain stable for our generation and the future.

Recognizing the needs of more than 50 million Americans with disabilities, the Obama administration has made a commitment to expanding employment opportunities, increase educational opportunities, strengthen health care, promote civil rights and access to community living, support the use of assistive technology, and support international disability rights. One of the questions that divide Democrats and Republicans in the budget debate is not whether those who need financial support and health care deserve to receive them, but how best to ensure that funds are distributed efficiently.

Most people lump social security and other public social programs together, thereby missing the important functions of each. When it comes to the needs of PWDs, distinctions need to be made between social security disability insurance benefits, social security income, Medicare, and Medicaid.  Social security disability insurance (SSDI) is reserved for those individuals who have worked in the past and paid social security taxes, but have acquired a disability for which they cannot return to their jobs. Social security income (SSI), however, is money that is available for PWDs as a supplement based on financial need.  Medicare is health insurance provided for people who are 65 and older, and those under 65 who experience certain disabilities. Medicaid is health insurance provided to eligible low-income families or persons with certain disabilities.

When we talk about cutting back government spending on social programs, we should realize that cutting back on SSDI is very different from cutting back on SSI. Fiscally conservative politicians favor a sophisticated screening process whereby those who are out of work due to minor injuries are urged to find vocational training so that they can resume meaningful employment and contribute to the economy. The Republican 2012 Budget Proposal is rather adamant about this point, albeit in an unsurprisingly pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps tone, stating that their plans “ensure that America’s safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.” This is not a new sentiment, as the GOP has generally preferred a streamlined, small-government approach to public spending. Although it seems counter-intuitive, this may be a fruitful way to differentiate between those individuals with mild disabilities who are in transition between jobs, and those who experience moderate to serious forms of disability which prevent them from working at all.

On the other hand, Democrats prefer to expand services that will guarantee the welfare of all American citizens. As a good example of this, Obama’s 2012 Budget Proposal promises $12.5 billion to social security programs ($1 billion more than last year). It also proposes pilot programs to address the needs of children under the SSI program, and effective ways to help disabled individuals find employment. Finally Obama’s budget promises to cut waste by reviewing cases annually to assess the true medical needs of each recipient. This seems like a comprehensive plan that offers full support to individuals, but it does not fully target and address the problems of fraud and abuse of the social security system, which tend to waste a a great deal of money.

Ideally, I would like to see a system that embraces the attitudes of both of these perspectives on social security. In order to reduce our federal deficit and better serve the public, government agencies should always be open to innovative and cost-effective strategies that will allocate funds to groups that will benefit the most. I do believe that healthy work ethic and employment are the keys to a balanced economy. Therefore, we should see a more urgent push for vocational training opportunities for those who are out of work. The funds that are saved in the long-run should then focus on providing for PWDs who are not able to quickly and easily find adequate employment. This doesn’t simply mean handing out a check every month, but also striving to establish workplace environments that are accessible to PWDs, funding programs that teach employers the benefits of hiring PWDs, and continuing to invest in public schools so that students with disabilities are offered the physical and intellectual support they need to thrive. Altthough these are salient points in the context of the current budget crisis, it crucial to remember that this issue is relevant to all future endeavors to allocate funds that will make a real difference in the way the PWDs live and work in the U.S. Although measurable progress has been made since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, many capable PWDs are still not given the opportunities to find work that is meaningful and sustainable.

Sarah Amin is a Program and Research Intern with the SISGI Group’s Research Division focusing on Human Rights Advocacy and International Disability Rights. To learn more about the SISGI Group visit www.sisgigroup.org.

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