Cotton Proposes Social Security Disability Changes To Curb "Social Plagues"

Nov 9, 2015

File photo: Then U.S. Representative Tom Cotton (R-4th District) at the Clinton School of Public Service (2013).
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

An Arkansas U.S. Senator primarily known for foreign policy is proposing changes to Social Security’s disability program. Sen. Tom Cotton detailed new legislation Monday at a forum held by the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation intended to reduce the number of disability beneficiaries.

He contended the number of people on disability in “greater Appalachia” is at a “tipping point” that contributes to a general decline in rural America.

“When a county hits a certain level of disability usage disability becomes a norm. It becomes an acceptable way of life and alternative source of income to a good paying full time job as opposed to a last resort safety net program to deal with catastrophic injury and illness,” said Cotton in Heritage’s Washington D.C. office.

However, a recent issue paper from the Social Security administration titled "Social Security Disability Insurance at 60: Does It Still Reflect Congress' Intent?" concluded the program is generally not abused.

"Beneficiaries generally had long work histories before becoming eligible for DI. Most beneficiaries not only met the minimum insured-status requirements, but handily exceeded them, often earning the maximum possible work credits in all (or nearly all) years between age 21 and DI eligibility. Their patterns of predisability employment by industry were much like those of nondisabled workers, and prior to starting DI benefits, they had achieved adjusted earnings in their top 5 earnings years that, on average, were comparable to the 2014 earnings of nondisabled workers.

As the DI program's designers intended, most disabled-worker beneficiaries are older; the majority of them are aged 50 or older when they start receiving benefits. The program's strict eligibility standards are reflected in the high mortality rate among beneficiaries within 5 years of starting benefits. Its goal of providing only the most basic of benefits is reflected in the fact that the average benefit level remains less than one-third of the national AWI and only slightly above the federal poverty line.'

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The freshman Republican from Yell County also linked high rates of disability use to crime and drug addiction.

“Communities could begin to suffer other social plagues as well such as heroin or meth addiction and associated crime. An urgent policy goal therefore should be to stop these tipping points from being reached,” he said, “there’s nothing compassionate about accepting these rates of disability usage.”

Democratic Party of Arkansas Chair Vincent Insalaco in a statement said “I doubt Senator Cotton would give the same speech to a group of disabled Arkansans.”

“Senator Tom Cotton attacked nearly a quarter of a million Arkansans today when he called Social Security Disability Insurance a ‘social plague’ comparing its effects to that of meth and heroine. Cotton proposed taking decisions about treatment and recovery time out of the hands of patients and their doctors and giving that power to government bureaucrats. Senator Cotton’s proposal would undermine the safety net for the least fortunate among us.’

Cotton has yet to introduce the legislation in the Senate but he outlined a three pronged approach. First, adding more classifications to cover a spectrum of disability.

“Social Security will distinguish between those who are genuinely and permanently disabled and those are disabled but expected to recover,” he said, “those who are expected to recover will be categorized as likely or potential to recover.

Second, Cotton outlined integrating some level of work.

“It will allow beneficiaries in these categories to earn an income while on the program through a benefit offset. These beneficiaries can take time for rehabilitation and gradually rejoin the workforce. With the offset they won’t be at risk of losing their benefits as they begin to earn more money on the path back to full time work,” he said.

Imposing timelines on the progress of conditions that warranted disability designations is the third plank of Cotton’s plan.

“My legislation will also set timelines for these individuals to exit the program and return to work. If the recovery goes more slowly than expected and they’re not yet ready to return to work they can re-apply,” said Cotton.

Arkansas has the second highest rate of people on Social Security Disability Insurance. Its one of six states with more than 7 percent of the population on disability. A recent Social Security Administration report found 8.4 percent of Arkansans, or 158,776 people aged 18-64 received benefits. 

States close to Arkansas in population size, though not necessarily parallel in other ways, generally fall below Arkanas's high rate such as Utah (3), Iowa (4.6) and Kansas (4.7) but some are close like Mississippi (7.9). 

Alabama has the highest rate at 8.5 percent of its population. At 2.8 percent Alaska has the lowest use, followed by Hawaii (2.9) and California (3.2).

Watch Senator Cotton’s full remarks on C-SPAN.