Topic: Social Security

60 Minutes Disability Investigation

The abuse and overspending in government disability programs is so bad that even National Public Radio and 60 Minutes have taken notice. On the heels of this excellent NPR examination of the “disability industrial complex,” the venerable CBS news show last night profiled Senator Tom Coburn’s efforts to uncover fraud in the two big federal disability programs.

The combined spending on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) has risen to a huge $200 billion a year, so kudos to the mainstream media for sounding the alarm on these programs. What we need now is for other fiscal conservatives on Capitol Hill to stand with Senator Coburn and demand reforms.

There appear to be millions of people on the disability programs whose ailments are not actually severe enough to warrant coverage or who are outright scamming the system.  On 60 Minutes, Senator Coburn guessed that one-quarter or more of the people currently on the disability programs shouldn’t be. The following chart (sourced here) from Tad DeHaven supports Coburn’s assessment:

During the 1970s and 1980s, the ratio of people on SSDI to the U.S. workforce averaged 3.4 percent. That ratio has now more than doubled to 7.4 percent, even though the actual rate of disability among the working-age population is thought not to have increased in recent decades.

The following chart illustrates the problem from another angle. It uses data compiled by Jagadeesh Gokhale from the Current Population Survey on men aged 20 to 59 with a work-limiting health problem. Within this group, a falling share are working and a rising share are going on SSDI and not working.

As DeHaven explains in his recent reports on SSDI and SSI, the rapid growth in these programs is very troubling, and not just because of the rising taxpayer costs. The programs are apparently inducing many people who could be using their skills productively in the economy to instead drop out and go on the federal dole.

All government subsidy programs undermine individual responsibility and induce unproductive behaviors. This is true, for example, of the roughly $30 billion in annual federal subsidies for farm businesses. Each year federal disability programs pump out six times more benefits than farm subsidies, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the distortions and economic harm created is far larger.

SSDI (Problems) in the News

My recent paper on the rising cost of Social Security Disability Insurance is proving to be timely. 

First, the Washington Post’s Michael Fletcher provides a good overview of SSDI’s “issues.” Fletcher highlights a Maine county where the disability rolls have jumped as the local paper mills have shed jobs. That’s because the program has become a quasi-unemployment program, a problem that’s been exacerbated by the economic downturn. One former mill worker who said that he would rather be working now collects disability and “spends a lot of his free time riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle to bike rallies around New England.” 

Second, The Economist points to research that suggests that SSDI is contributing to a reduction in the labor force participation rate: 

These results suggest that if it were not for people receiving disability insurance, reported unemployment would be far higher. Although DI recipients may initially have climbed because the economy was weak, their numbers will almost certainly not decline when it strengthens again; only 4% of beneficiaries return to work within ten years. The proportion of working-age adults on DI has risen from 1.3% in 1970 to 4.6% in 2013. The impact on participation rates may be cyclical at first and then become structural.

Third, a new Government Accountability Office report estimates that the Social Security Administration paid out $1.3 billion in benefits over two years to individuals who probably shouldn’t have received them. I should caution, however, that although fraud is an inherent problem with federal disability programs (and an improper payment doesn’t necessarily mean fraud was involved), it’s abuse of the system that is the bigger problem–i.e., people legally qualifying for benefits who arguably shouldn’t. 

But yes, fraud certainly exists and that leads to the fourth story. In June, a former Democratic state representative in Missouri pled guilty “to illegally taking $58,816 in federal disability payments while he was working as a state legislator earning $30,000 a year.” Ah, there are so many wisecracks to be made here, but I’ll just go with one: A politician stealing taxpayer money is illegal? Who knew!  

Social Security Disability Fraud in Puerto Rico

In 2011, the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Paletta reported on the rapid growth in individuals applying for and receiving Social Security disability benefits. Paletta found that Puerto Rico had become a particularly easy place to obtain benefits. Officials with the Social Security Administration (SSA) absurdly claimed that nothing was amiss. 

It looks like the SSA is about to get some egg on its face. 

Yesterday, Paletta reported that federal investigators, including the FBI, raided doctors’ offices in Puerto Rico as part of a widening probe into disability fraud on the island. A doctor’s opinion that an individual is suffering from a disability is naturally quite helpful in convincing examiners and judges that benefits are warranted. Investigators are apparently looking into whether Puerto Rican doctors are being paid to document that applicants are disabled. From the article: 

In 2006, just 36% of initial applicants in Puerto Rico were awarded benefits. In December 2010, the award rate had jumped to 69%. By 2010, nine of the top 10 U.S. ZIP Codes for workers receiving disability benefits were on the island. 

At the time, SSA officials said the high number of recipients and the high award rate was due to the island’s weak economy and a lack of adequate health care for workers. 

The program is overseen by the Social Security Administration in Baltimore, but each state and territory is responsible for performing an initial screening to determine eligibility. Social Security officials said in 2011 that Puerto Rico had rigorous standards and a virtually nonexistent error rate. 

The characteristics of Puerto Rico’s beneficiaries differed from other areas. In addition to the large clusters in certain zip codes, federal data showed that 33.3% of Puerto Rican beneficiaries qualified because of “mood disorders,” a rate that is at least 10 percentage points higher than any U.S. state. 

Disability examiners and federal judges say mental disorders are harder to measure and often rely on medical opinions issued by doctors to make a determination. 

SSDI was designed as a way to provide benefits for people who can’t work because of mental or physical health problems, and Americans can qualify for benefits because of ailments ranging from severe back pain to terminal cancer. 

A lifetime of benefits, including access to Medicare, can cost the government about $300,000 a person. 

As I noted in my recent paper on the growing cost of Social Security Disability Insurance, the SSA’s inspector general says that “fraud is an inherent risk in SSA’s disability programs.” But as my paper explains, the problems with the program go way beyond outright fraud: 

Given the subjective and convoluted nature of determining SSDI eligibility, it’s likely that erroneous and unjustified payments are far larger in volume than just outright fraud. The huge, complex, and difficult-to-audit system is a perfect breeding ground for awarding and continuing benefits to people who shouldn’t be on the disability rolls.

Downsize the Social Security Administration

A new section on the Social Security Administration (SSA) has been added to Cato’s Downsizing Government website. The SSA operates three large programs that provide benefits to millions of Americans: Old-Age and Survivors Insurance, Disability Insurance, and Supplemental Security Income. Total SSA spending will be $873 billion in 2013, which works out to an average of about $7,300 for every household in the nation. 

Essays: 

Social Security Retirement: Social Security faces a huge financing gap because of its pay-as-you-go structure and the aging of the U.S. population. It should be transitioned to a system of personal savings accounts, which would increase individual financial security and help to avert future tax increases.   

Social Security Disability Insurance: Growing numbers of Americans are receiving disability benefits, and the system is subject to major abuses. Policymakers should tighten eligibility for the program and explore ways to move it to the private sector.   

Supplemental Security Income: This program for low-income and disabled individuals suffers from similar abuses and overspending problems as Social Security Disability Insurance. The financing and administration of Supplemental Security Income should be devolved to the states. 

State and Local Pension Liabilities

The unsustainable path of federal entitlements has received huge attention in recent years, but the unfunded pension liabilities of state and local governments are also large.  In recent work, economists Robert Novy-Marx and Joshua Rauh, of Rochester and Stanford, respectively, estimate that this liability may approach $3 trillion.  

That figure might sound paltry compared to the unfunded federal liabilities for Social Security and Medicare; Cato scholar Jagadeesh Ghokale estimates these to be more than $66 trillion as of fiscal year 2013.

Yet $3 trillion is hardly chicken feed.  Novy-Marx and Rauh estimate that to fund these pensions fully within 30 years, states would need to raise taxes by $1,385 per household, per year, over that period. 

This calculation highlights the enormity of the unfunded federal liabilities. Assuming the necessary tax increases would be proportional to the difference between state and federal liabilities, it would take an extra $30,470 in taxes per household, per year, for 30 years, to fund the federal liabilities.

Rauh and Novy-Marx go on to examine options for reducing the state unfunded liabilities. One approach is a “soft freeze” that enrolls new hires in defined contribution rather than defined benefit plans; this reduces the required tax increases from $1,385 to $1,210 per year.  Another approach is a hard freeze that stops benefit accruals for employees already in the defined benefits plans; this reduces the tax increases to $700-$800 per year.

An approach that Novy-Marx and Rauh do not consider is shrinking state and local government, which makes sense in many instances even if pensions are fully funded.  Legalizing drugs, for example, would mean reduced employment of police, prosecutors, and prison guards; this not only saves pension costs but also wages, salaries, and health costs, while eliminating a government activity that never made sense in the first place.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Which Nation Is in the Deepest Fiscal Doo-Doo of All?

According to the Bank for International Settlements, the United States has a terrible long-run fiscal outlook. Assuming we don’t implement genuine entitlement reform, the only countries in worse shape are the United Kingdom and Japan.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, meanwhile, also has a grim fiscal outlook for America. According to their numbers, the only nations in worse shape are New Zealand and Japan.

But I’ve never been happy with these BIS and OECD numbers because they focus on deficits, debt, and fiscal balance. Those are important indicators, of course, but they’re best viewed as symptoms.

The underlying problem is that the burden of government spending is too high. And what the BIS and OECD numbers are really showing is that the public sector is going to get even bigger in coming decades, largely because of aging populations. Unfortunately, you have to read between the lines to understand what’s really happening.

But now I’ve stumbled across some IMF data that presents the long-run fiscal outlook in a more logical fashion. As you can see from this graph (taken from this publication), they show the expected rise in age-related spending on the vertical axis and the amount of needed fiscal adjustment on the horizontal axis.

In other words, you don’t want your nation to be in the upper-right quadrant, but that’s exactly where you can find the United States.

IMF Future Spending-Adjustment Needs

Yes, Japan needs more fiscal adjustment. Yes, the burden of government spending will expand by a larger amount in Belgium. But America combines the worst of both worlds in a depressingly impressive fashion.

So thanks to FDR, LBJ, Nixon, Bush, Obama and others for helping to create and expand the welfare state. They’ve managed to put the United States in a worse long-run position than Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and other failing welfare states.

The Old Infrastructure Excuse for Bigger Deficits

Washington Post columnist/blogger Ezra Klein recently echoed the latest White House rationale for additional “stimulus” spending for 2013-15 and postponing spending restraint (including sequestration) until after the 2014 elections. Klein argues for “a 10- or 12-year deficit reduction plan that includes a substantial infrastructure investment in the next two or three years.” In other words, a “deficit-reduction plan” that increases deficits until the next presidential election year.

Citing Larry Summers (who similarly promoted Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan while head of the National Economic Council) Klein says, “There’s a far better case right now for being an infrastructure hawk than a deficit hawk.”

“Deficit hawks tend to [worry that] … too much government borrowing can, in a healthy economy, begin to “crowd out” private borrowing. That means interest rates rise and the economy slows… That’s not happening right now. In real terms — which means after accounting for inflation — the U.S. government can borrow for five, seven or 10 years at less than nothing… . That’s extraordinary. It means markets are so nervous that they will literally pay us to keep their money safe for them.”

If low yields on Treasury and agency bonds simply reflected investor anxiety (unlike stock prices),  rather than quantitative easing, then why has the Federal Reserve been spending $85 billion a month buying Treasury and agency bonds? Despite those Fed efforts, Treasury bond yields have lately been moving up rather smartly – even on TIPS (inflation-protected securities). The yield on 10-year bonds rose by a half percentage point since early May. It is not credible to assume, as Summers does in a paper with Brad DeLong, that today’s yields would remain as low as they have been even in the face of substantially more federal borrowing for infrastructure. Even the Fed’s appetite for Treasury IOUs has limits. 

A second worry of deficit hawks, according to Klein and Summers, “is a moral concern about forcing our children to pay the bill for the things we bought… .These are real, worthwhile concerns. But in this economy, both make a stronger case for investing in infrastructure than paying down debt.”  Paying down debt?!  Nobody is talking about paying debt. That would require a budget surplus.  The debate is only about borrowing slightly less (sequestration) or substantially more (Obama).

The Summers-Klein argument for larger deficits is that interest rates are very low, so why not borrow billions more for a “substantial investment” in highways, bridges and airports?  Summers says, “just as you burden future generations when you accumulate debt, you also burden future generations when you defer maintenance.”  This might make sense if there was any link between government tangible assets and federal liabilities.  In reality, though, this smells like a red herring. Politicians always say they want to borrow more to build or rebuild highways and bridges.  But this is not how borrowed money is spent, particularly when it’s federal borrowing.

Accumulation of federal debt since 2008 − including the 2009 stimulus plan − had virtually nothing to do with investment. Nearly 90 percent of the  2009 “stimulus” was devoted to consumption – $430.7 billion in transfer payments to individuals, more than $300 billion in refundable tax credits, $18.4 billion in subsidies (e.g., solar and electric car lobbies), more pay and perks for government workers, etc. Stanford’s John Taylor shows that even the capital grants to states − ostensibly intended for infrastructure projects − were used to reduce state borrowing and increase transfer payments such as Medicaid.

In the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA), the closest thing we have to a measure of “infrastructure” is government investment in structures.  Federal borrowing in the NIPA accounts rose from $493.5 billion in 2008 to $1,177.8  in 2010, yet total federal, state and local investment in structures was unchanged − $310.1 billion in 2008 and $309.3 billion in 2010. Such investment was lower by 2012, but not because federal borrowing was “only” $932.8 billion that year.  

NIPA accounts show only a $12.9 billion federal investment in nondefense structures in 2012 and $8.5 billion for defense structures. By contrast, transfer payments accounted for 61.7 percent of federal spending in 2012, consumption for 28.2 percent, interest 8.5 percent and subsidies 1.6 percent.   Consumption is mostly salaries and benefits. Transfer payments did include more than $607 billion in grants to states and localities in 2011, according to a new CBO study, but 81.7 percent of such grants were for health, income security and education, leaving only 10 percent for transportation. Transportation accounted only 3.2 percent of total federal spending in 2012 and nine percent of “discretionary” spending.

In short, direct federal infrastructure investment plus grants to states add up to only a little over $80 billion out of a budget that exceeds $3.5 trillion. If federal borrowing had anything to do with $80 billion a year in federal infrastructure spending, then we wouldn’t have been borrowing about a trillion a year for the past four years. 

Klein’s rephrasing of Summers’ rerun of the 2009 “infrastructure” excuse is not a plausible argument for increased federal debt. It is, at best, an argument for ending the chronic misuse of borrowed money to pay for transfer payments and government consumption so that we could prudently reallocate a greater share to transportation infrastructure.