Social Security criticized over disability benefits

May 14, 1994|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Social Security's welfare program for the disabled, blind and aged came under sharp attack on Capitol Hill yesterday as a powerful Democratic senator, focusing on benefits for children, drug addicts and alcoholics, called it "a prime example of a well-intentioned entitlement program run amok."

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the program is a "microcosm of what is wrong with our federal deficit, not to mention the damage that is being done to our children in teaching them that their future lies not in hard work but in ripping off the federal government for benefits."

He was referring to allegations from school personnel that parents are coaching children on how to act so they can qualify for the federal disability payments -- as much as $446 a month. Mr. Byrd quoted a West Virginia teacher as telling him in a letter that "many students know the 'racket' and deliberately try to fail and be deliberately disruptive" so they can qualify for benefits.

Social Security operates two disability programs: the program for low-income people that is financed out of the annual budget; and a separate program for those who have worked and paid taxes to the Social Security trust fund, which is financed from the trust fund.

With about 7 million people on the rolls, the agency has been swamped with applications in recent years and has a backlog expected to reach 1 million by the end of the year. The most explosive growth has come in the program for the poor, which is called SSI. The cost of that program has risen from $13.8 billion to more than $25 billion in the past five years.

Officials attribute much of the growth to "outreach" efforts of the Social Security Administration, to advocacy groups that work aggressively to enroll people, and to the efforts of some states to shift recipients from the general welfare program, which is financed in part by the states, onto the SSI program, where state hTC supplements to the federal payment are optional.

Three troubled elements of that program were the subject of yesterday's hearing at the subcommittee that handles the Social Security budget. They are:

* Alcohol and drug addicts. Addictions alone can qualify them for payments. The number of addicts on the rolls has more than tripled, from 24,000 to 80,000 since 1990, amid widespread complaints that the money is being used to feed addictions and that most addicts are not being required to get into treatment programs or being monitored.

* Fraud by immigrants, the interpreters who shepherd them through the application process and the doctors who certify that they are disabled. There have been a number of prosecutions in California and Washington state.

* The children's program. Since 1989, the number of children on the rolls has risen from 296,000 to nearly 800,000, and the cost has risen from $1.2 billion to $4.5 billion. That growth is attributed largely to a 1990 Supreme Court decision that broadened the criteria under which children could qualify for disability payments.

Members of Congress have reported receiving complaints that parents are coaching children to misbehave to qualify for benefits. Rep. Blanche M. Lambert, an Arkansas Democrat, told a House committee in March of such allegations and said that in her state, the benefits for children are called "crazy checks."

Shirley S. Chater, commissioner of Social Security, said the agency had done a study of 600 cases in the children's program that "showed no evidence of widespread coaching or that coaching had influenced decisions."

Meanwhile, trying to quell congressional criticism of the $32 million in bonuses her agency paid last year, Ms. Chater said her deputy, Lawrence H. Thompson, would voluntarily return the $9,256 bonus he received after 73 days at the agency.

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