Who's in charge of this program?

January 25, 1995

Year by year, the costs in billions of Social Security's disability programs have risen. Here is a time line of the events and decisions


President Nixon asks Congress to show compassion for the poor, elderly and disabled by passing a new welfare plan. Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman records in his diary that Nixon doesn't really support his own proposal. Instead, it is a political ploy to win support from black leaders and senior citizens, while dividing the Democrat-controlled Congress.


Congress kills Nixon's welfare plan for families, but passes crucial 16 pages that create a broad cash assistance program for the elderly and disabled poor who can't work. It eliminates 1,000 state-run disability programs. Congress makes little of the fact that low-level aides have inserted language making drug addicts, children and immigrants eligible.


Social Security Commissioner Robert M. Ball asks congressional leaders to delay program, but is ignored. In 14 months, his agency must hire and train 15,000 workers, write 100 computer programs and install a complex national communications network.



More than 3 million people flood into new Supplemental Security Income program by end of January. Social Security's untested communications network collapses, cutting off 1,400 field offices from central computer at headquarters outside Baltimore. Thousands are left without checks. Angry mobs jam waiting rooms. One million more people come onto SSI by year's end.



Social Security admits it has made $1 billion in overpayments. Others put the figure at $2 billion. Money will never be recovered.



Alarmed at growth, Congress orders a review of recipients. Ronald Reagan rakes Carter administration for failing to control cheats. The General Accounting Office says 584,000 people may be getting checks improperly, costing $2 billion a year. 11 million immigrants are on their way, driven by generous rules passed by Congress. Some 700,000 aliens and refugees will find their way onto SSI.



Under orders from President Reagan, Social Security begins to purge 600,000 disability aid recipients -- triggering a rash of lawsuits. On appeal, 300,000 get benefits back. Courts rebuke administration officials and Social Security, issue decisions that broaden disability rules.



Brian Zebley, 5, of suburban Philadelphia, is removed from rolls despite disabilities. Case goes to U.S. Supreme Court, which rules that Social Security's disability rules for children are hopelessly flawed and orders agency to rewrite them. Under new rules, Social Security grants $1.4 billion in retroactive payments to 134,000 children denied benefits.



Reacting to public outcry and criticism from 18 governors, Reagan ends purge. Congress adopts bipartisan "reform" legislation making it easier to get checks and harder for Social Security to cut them off, orders relaxation of mental disability rules. A million "mentally disabled" people begin to pour into SSI.



Congress orders Social Security to seek out the homeless, many of them addicts and alcoholics, and invite them to apply for checks. The agency begins a $27.5 million national "outreach" campaign to encourage applications. By the end of the year, 4.5 million people are collecting benefits.



Social Security issues a new list of mental symptoms that qualify for benefits under 1984 Reform Act. More than 800,000 children will come onto rolls over the next five years -- equaling number who won benefits in previous 16 years. Mental disorders become No. 1 disability of adults and children. By year's end, 4.9 million people are drawing checks.



Unnoticed by Congress, at least 14 states begin to shut down adult welfare programs and dump recipients onto federal disability rolls. Maryland pays a private firm $3.2 million a year to run people through application process.



Congressional Research Service warns that the Retirement Trust Fund on which millions rely is threatened by easier access to disability programs. Some SSI applicants are being steered into a program for disabled workers called Disability Insurance that is paid for by the trust. Social Security begins to cut corners. Commis-sioner Gwendolyn King orders workers "to expedite" approvals. 5.6 million are on the rolls.



GAO warns that disability caseworkers are swamped and suffering burnout. A million applications are backlogged. Case reviews ordered by Congress in 1980 to be sure recipients are still disabled have all but stopped. The agency has absorbed six budget cuts and the loss of 20,000 employees in a decade. By year's end, nearly 6 million draw SSI checks.



Reports reach Washington that addicts and alcoholics are using disability checks to buy drugs and alcohol. Congress lashes out at Social Security for failing to supervise them and steer them into treatment, but has refused to provide funding. Con-gress orders the agency to cut addicts off after three years, but most will stay on the rolls because they have ailments beyond addiction.



A new Republican majority in Congress gears up for new hearings starting Friday, vowing to slash checks to addicts, children and aliens. Social Security braces for new orders and a surge of lawsuits. Legal challenges by substance abusers are expected to cost more than $40 million. Number of people drawing SSI checks is 6.3 million. Number on DI reaches 5 million. Total cost: $65 billion.

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