Three point nine trillion dollars. (That’s 39 followed by 11 zeros.) This much money boggles the imagination and is almost impossible to comprehend, yet this is what it will cost to run our federal government next year if President Obama’s 2015 budget is approved.
Buried deep in the 218-page budget proposal is a provision that would prohibit people from collecting Social Security’s disability insurance and collecting unemployment benefits at the same time. Congress has been debating this so-called “double-dipping” for a couple of months now as a way to offset the increased costs of extending unemployment insurance benefits, but this is an unfair and misguided attack on disabled Americans.
To even call this “double-dipping” is just flat-out wrong. Here’s why: For you to receive Social Security disability benefits, you must have a severe impairment that prevents you from engaging in “substantial gainful activity,” which is defined as earning more than $1,070 a month. This means that disabled Americans can do some modest amount work if they do not exceed the income limit. This work, even though it is limited, helps the economy and may help a disabled person transition back into full-time employment, if their medical condition improves.
Social Security Disability and Unemployment Insurance are separate programs. If a disabled person loses their less than $1,070-a-month job, shouldn’t they be able to collect unemployment benefits like any other worker, especially since they’ve paid into both Social Security and Unemployment Insurance programs over the years? Under the President’s proposed plan, the answer would be no.
“There are a vanishingly small number of people even in this situation—about 117,000 of the nearly 9 million Americans on disability also collect Unemployment Insurance,” says George Zornick writing for TheNation.com. “ The concurrent benefits average $3,300 total each quarter, which hardly affords one a luxurious lifestyle. But members of both parties are apparently ready to tell this small segment of the population—people who are both disabled and lost a part-time job—that they are receiving too much money.” The National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives had this to say after the budget’s release: “While rare, receiving Social Security Disability Insurance and Unemployment Insurance is consistent and appropriate when eligibility requirements for both programs are met.”
The projected savings from this policy change are teeny-tiny. The White House says this will save $3.2 billion over ten years, which may sound meaningful, but as the Los Angeles Times pointed out “that’s less than seven thousandths of a percent of projected federal spending in the same period—finding that amount of money in the budget is like looking for a grain of salt parked under a pea on your dinner plate.”
Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, called the proposal to deny unemployment benefits to individuals who are eligible for Social Security disability payments, “an affront to the dignity of persons with disabilities and the work they perform – undermining one of the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act.”