The Disabilities Disaster

January 25, 1995

Anyone who thought it would be easy to truly reform welfare -- or even to root out the old devils of waste, fraud and abuse -- has surely been chastened by The Sun's illuminating four-day series on the Social Security Administration's disability programs, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Disability Insurance (DI).

Entire families who earn a comfortable livelihood by simply remaining nonproductive; children who are scolded for achieving at school because it would endanger their disability payments; addicts whose skids into the gutter are greased by government checks; immigrants who are systematically coached to lie to the government so they can get a monthly handout -- these and other horror stories chronicled by reporters John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner cannot be blamed solely on criminal minds determined to bilk the taxpayers.

No, the larger blame lies squarely on federal elected officials who settle for enshrining good intentions in law, while failing to apply common sense to regulations or to provide agencies with even the bare minimum of resources needed to prevent gross abuses.

Read these stories carefully, and it's painfully clear that both Congress and the executive branch now face a nightmare of their own creation -- a social safety net that has spiraled out of control at a high cost to taxpayers and, in some cases, to the recipients themselves.

The challenge facing Congress in trying to fix Social Security's disability programs will sorely test its ability to act in the best interests of the American people. The easiest options are also the wrong ones. Simply gutting disability payments is a tempting move, but doing so would cruelly penalize some of the sickest and weakest Americans.

On the other hand, continuing to turn a blind eye to the glaring problems in SSI and DI would waste billions of taxpayer dollars, put at risk the larger Social Security system and continue to encourage a something-for-nothing system of rewards that values dependency over achievement, addiction over treatment, the ability to con the government over the desire to be a contributing member of society.

Listen to the drug treatment counselor who readily confesses that if the two-decade-old SSI program had been around when he was trying to kick a mean habit, he wouldn't have made it. Ponder the observation of an elementary school principal in an impoverished rural community who blames the scramble for "lazy checks" for lowering the academic standards of his students. Listen as well to the complaints of beleaguered workers in Social Security's field offices around the country.

And remember, when members of Congress begin grandstanding with simple solutions for these pervasive problems, how easily bombast and carelessness can combine to make things worse.

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