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U.S. Rep. Allen West, a Florida Republican, was in Rhode Island last weekend on a fundraising trip.
During a radio interview Aug. 1 on WHJJ’s "The Helen Glover Show," Glover turned the conversation toward a topic West has talked about often in recent months: the correlation between the number of people exhausting their unemployment benefits and new recipients of Social Security Disability benefits.
"It’s unconscionable to think that in the month of June, the federal government [reported] 80,000 new jobs created but the little fact that no one is talking about is that we have 85,000 people go on Social Security Disability the same month."
Said West: "So we actually had more people go on Social Security Disability -- which is different from Social Security -- than the 80,000 jobs that were created."
"What we are doing is just making more people economically dependent on government," said West, "instead of having the right economic policies to make people economically free."
West, a first-term congressman, is known for making provocative remarks. In April 2012 he garnered headlines when he said "about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party" were communists -- a reference, he said, to the liberal-leaning Congressional Progressive Caucus, which the Communist Party has publicly referred to as its ally.
PolitiFact Florida gave that statement a Pants on Fire rating, saying West was using a guilt-by-association rationale and had failed to prove that any member of Congress was a communist.
We wondered whether he was on more solid ground in his claim about Social Security Disability. We asked his office for his backup, but they never responded. Then we began our own research.
We discovered that West got his numbers right. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 80,000 new jobs were created in June. And the Social Security Administration reported that 84,766 people were new beneficiaries of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) that same month.
(Since January, employment growth has averaged about 151,000 new jobs a month, the labor bureau reports. Over that same period, an average of 82,560 people per month went on SSDI.)
SSDI is a federal program funded by workers’ payroll taxes, just like Social Security retirement. To be eligible, workers must qualify as physically or mentally disabled and must have also paid some of those Social Security taxes during their employment.
Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, has said that in every recession since the 1970s, the number of people applying for Social Security Disability has increased as their unemployment benefits expire.
In a talk in April before the National Academy of Social Insurance, in Washington, D.C., Goss explained the trend as a "temporary phenomenon for a cyclic economic downturn."
"The [current] recession resulted in a lot of people becoming unemployed ... and when people become unemployed they seek a way of continuing to have income. And people who can qualify for our disabled worker benefits, of course, go ahead and apply. So we did have an increase in the number of applications."
David H. Autor, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has served on the President’s Council on Economic Advisers, said in an e-mail: "I do not see this as a political issue." It is well-known that "when economic times are bad, many more people turn to SSDI out of desperation....
"The growth of SSDI is a long-standing problem and the recession has made it worse," Autor said. "The comparison between the two numbers (SSDI awards and jobs) is depressing."
By the end of last year, more than 8.5 million Americans were receiving SSDI, roughly 1 million more than when the Great Recession began in December 2007, according to the Social Security Administration.
Included in that figure were 35,905 disabled workers in Rhode Island receiving on average $1,115 a month, not counting the smaller state supplement they also receive.
That growth is expected to continue; several studies have predicted that SSDI could run out of money by 2018.
The Obama administration referred to the program’s costs when it argued for extending unemployment benefits last fall, saying in a December 2011 report: "workers on SSDI rarely return to the labor force, resulting in a loss to society of the economic contribution those workers could have made. Thus, keeping the long-term unemployed in the labor force should be a priority."
Rep. Allen West said that the number of people who became recipients of Social Security Disability in June (85,000) was higher than the number of jobs created that month (80,000). West quoted the numbers accurately. We rate his statement True.
"The Helen Glover Show," interview with U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., Aug. 1, 2012, accessed Aug. 3, 2012
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "June Employment Situation News Release," July 6, 2012, accessed Aug. 6, 2012
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Current Employment Statistics Highlights July 2012," Aug. 3, 2012, accessed Aug. 8, 2012
Social Security Administration, "Selected Data from SSDI Program," accessed Aug. 8, 2012
National Academy of Social Insurance, "Why are More People Claiming Social Security Disability Insurance and What Should be Done About It," speech by Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, April 3, 2012, accessed Aug. 6, 2012
The National Bureau of Economic Research, "The Unsustainable Rise of the Disability Rolls in the United States: Causes, Consequences, and Policy Options," David H. Autor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, December 2011, accessed Aug. 8, 2012
Executive Office of the President, "Unemployment Insurance Extensions and Reforms in the American Jobs Act," December 2011, accessed Aug. 6, 2012
PolitiFact Florida, "About 78 to 81 House Democrats are members of the Communist Party," April 10, 2012, accessed Aug. 8, 2012
E-mails, David H. Autor, professor of economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Aug. 8, 2012
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