Congress urged to spend to put disabled to work Study panel says benefits would cost $17 billion

January 26, 1996|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Congress was urged yesterday to increase aid to the disabled by billions of dollars even though the Republican majority has been moving to scale back disability programs run by the Social Security Administration.

The call for more assistance came from a panel of the National Academy of Social Insurance, a think tank headed by former Social Security Commissioner Robert M. Ball. The new or expanded benefits would cost more than $17 billion over five years.

Aimed at encouraging the disabled to work, the proposals include a new tax credit for the disabled working poor, vouchers so recipients can purchase vocational rehabilitation services from private vendors, and a 44 percent increase -- from $500 to $720 a month -- in the amount some recipients can earn without losing benefits.

The report, requested by the House Ways and Means Committee in 1991, was greeted enthusiastically by the Social Security Administration.

"We're just delighted," said Susan Daniels, who is in charge of disability policy for the Woodlawn agency. She said the panel's findings dovetail with the agency's efforts to find ways to get disability recipients back to work.

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican who heads the Social Security subcommittee, promised "careful" consideration of the report but said it "seems to run counter to what many experts have told us."

Those experts, he said, assert that "the program is broken" and that "paying short-term -- rather than lifetime -- benefits to younger workers would be a powerful incentive to rehabilitation and return to productive employment."

A series in The Sun last January detailed serious problems with the disability programs, including children who get checks for marginal mental and behavioral problems; addicts and alcoholics using benefits to fuel their habits, sometimes fatally; and thousands of immigrants who make their way onto the rolls fraudulently.

The welfare bill that President Clinton vetoed Jan. 9 included a ban on benefits for legal aliens and tighter eligibility standards for children. A bill awaiting action would end benefits for addicts and alcoholics.

The panel last summer recommended minor changes in the children's program, but the report released yesterday did not deal with the troubled areas. Instead it offered a strong defense of SSA's two programs for the disabled: Disability Insurance (DI) for people who have worked and paid Social Security taxes, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for the poor who haven't paid those taxes.

The two programs cost $66 billion a year, with more than $52 TC billion going to working-age adults and their dependents. In less than five years, the benefits have soared more than 50 percent.

Yesterday, Jerry L. Mashaw, a Yale Law School professor who headed the panel, dismissed concern that the programs discourage work: "Going on disability insurance is not a good deal."

The panel's costliest proposal was the income tax credit for disabled workers, which would be available to DI and SSI recipients as well as to nonrecipients who meet certain criteria.

The panel estimated that 3.1 million people would be eligible and would collect $1,000 a year, over and above any other tax credit they receive.

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