Trim the entitlement machine with disability reform

Article Highlights

  • Government transfer programs currently account for 2 out of every 3 dollars of federal spending

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  • Social Security paid out $135 billion to 8.8 million recipients in disability payments in the past fiscal year alone

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  • There are more disability payees than paid workers in our entire manufacturing sector

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Editors note: This article originally appeared in The Washington Post's Think Tanked blog in response to the question: What should a Democratic entitlement reform plan look like?

Once upon a time, people in Washington said the business of America was business. Nowadays, as just about everyone in our town knows, the business of Washington is actually entitlements.

Government transfer programs currently account for 2 out of every 3 dollars of federal spending (even more if you add in the cost of administering them), and roughly half of all Americans now live in homes that receive entitlement benefits. In other words, the federal government has become (more or less) an entitlement machine, and recipients of entitlements program have become Washington’s single largest potential constituent group. (Now, class: can anyone explain why elected officials in Washington seem so totally terrified by entitlement reform?)

"The federal government has become (more or less) an entitlement machine, and recipients of entitlements program have become Washington’s single largest potential constituent group."-Nicholas EberstadtHonestly: does anyone really think our government safety net (dispensing nearly $2.4 trillion—almost $8,000 per man, woman and child in America—each year in money, goods and services) is stretched so thin today that there is nothing—nothing—of any significance that our two parties could agree to cut?

Here’s one suggestion: how about agreeing to get serious about disability reform?

Just about everyone who has looked at our governmental disability programs agrees they are out of control. Disability payments have exploded over the past generation—our Social Security system paid out $135 billion to 8.8 million recipients in the past fiscal year alone. More astonishing, HHS estimates that more than 12 million working-age Americans got some sort of government disability payments last year. By those numbers, there are more disability payees than paid workers in our entire manufacturing sector! And while we lack accurate figures on the scale of abuse and gaming in our disability system, there is no doubt that such problems are pervasive.

I submit that there is enormous scope for a popular and bipartisan “disability reform” effort today, akin to the “welfare reform” enacted back in the 1990s. But I wonder: is Washington today too dysfunctional to seize even this “low-hanging fruit” in the greater forest of entitlement reform?

Nicholas Eberstadt is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

 

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