Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Trouble for Social Security's Other Fund

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Trouble for Social Security's Other Fund

Article excerpt

As a disabled man, Matthew Rini of Harwood Heights, Ill., struggles to survive on sporadic earnings as a tour guide in Chicago and about $400 a month from the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program. His live-in companion, Maria, helps with household expenses.

But even as Mr. Rini grapples with a deteriorating ability to work, he and millions of others face another potential woe: a looming insolvency of the SSDI trust fund, whose reserves are set to run dry in three years. Unless Congress acts, disability benefits would then be cut 20 percent.

For some SSDI recipients, the result could be grim, requiring cutbacks in food purchases or other daily necessities. But as the 2016 deadline draws near, remedies for fixing SSDI are stirring up debate, complicating the path toward a resolution and highlighting the polarized views among Americans about government-run social programs. Politically, it's a trial run for the debate over shoring up Social Security, whose combined funds are expected to be depleted in 2033.

The SSDI program helps people who cannot work because of a medical condition. Nearly 11 million Americans, including almost 8.8 million disabled workers, plus their children and spouses, receive benefits. Disabled workers get an average $1,129.51 per month. Some conservatives deem the SSDI program bloated and want to undo at least some of a 1984 reform that effectively expanded the kind of disabilities covered by the program. Advocates are pushing to fortify the SSDI's finances, but they're divided over how to make that happen.

Some SSDI advocates think Congress should tackle the big picture, making the overall Social Security program solvent for the long term. Many others see too little time to reach that goal by 2016 and urge a shorter-term fix: allocating a slightly larger portion of Social Security's payroll tax revenues to its disability fund and a slightly lowered portion to its Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) retirement fund. That maneuver could keep both funds solvent until 2033.

That fix has been made before. The OASI and SSDI are the two Social Security programs with dedicated trust funds financed mainly by payroll taxes. (In contrast, Social Security's Supplemental Security Income program for low-income elderly, blind, or disabled people is funded out of general tax revenues.)

"Reallocation, which Congress has done 11 times in the past, is a short-term solution that gives Congress time to fix the Social Security system," says Lisa Ekman, federal policy director of Health & Disability Advocates, a nonprofit national group based in Chicago.

Not everyone agrees. "Just reallocating assets pushes the solvency problem down the road," says Charles Blahous, a public trustee of the Social Security Trust Funds. "If we can't get comprehensive reform by 2016, it suggests Congress won't be able to fix the current structure at any point. …

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