WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s budget chief said repeatedly this week that when people think of Social Security, retirement insurance is the only thing that comes to mind ― not disability insurance.
A “welfare program for the long-term disabled,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said on Tuesday, “is not what most people would consider to be Social Security.”
Social Security is best known as retirement insurance, but plenty of people are aware that it’s also disability insurance. Forty-three percent of survey respondents said they knew someone who received disability or survivors’ benefits from Social Security, according to a 2010 poll by AARP. (Asked if they knew someone simply “on Social Security,” more than two-thirds said they did.)
Mulvaney insisted disability insurance shouldn’t count as Social Security because President Donald Trump promised during the campaign that he would never support cutting Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. Trump’s budget, which Mulvaney unveiled this week, breaks that promise by proposing cuts to both Medicaid and Social Security. Because it doesn’t target Social Security’s retirement insurance component, Mulvaney dubiously claims the proposal doesn’t break Trump’s promise.
“If you ask 999 people out of 1,000, [they] would tell you that Social Security disability is not part of Social Security,” Mulvaney said on Monday. “It’s old-age retirement that they think of when they think of Social Security.”
If 43 percent of Americans have heard of Social Security Disability Insurance, per the AARP poll, then that means Mulvaney’s assertion is not correct.
And, as the progressive think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, even Republicans amenable to cutting Social Security Disability Insurance have talked about the program as a basic part of Social Security.
“Social Security provides vital financial support for more than 57 million beneficiaries,” House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) congressional website says. “Social Security also provides critical benefits to widows and those with disabilities.”
As a teenager, Ryan and his mother received Social Security survivors’ benefits after his father’s death, another element of the program that Mulvaney’s narrower definition of Social Security excludes.
Getting the benefits “helped me pay for college, it helped her go back to college in her 50s where she started a small business because of the new skills she got,” Ryan recalled during the 2012 vice presidential debate.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has also discussed the importance of Social Security survivors’ benefits for his younger sister, when both their parents died in a short span of time.
And Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), chairman of the Social Security subcommittee on the House Ways and Means Committee, has spoken about the program as a crucial source of insurance in the event of a severe disability.
“For years I’ve talked about the need to fix Social Security so that our children and grandchildren can count on it to be there for them, just like it’s there for today’s seniors and individuals with disabilities,” Johnson said in December.
In fact, it was a Republican who first created the Social Security Disability Insurance program. President Dwight D. Eisenhower expanded Social Security to cover workers with disabilities and their dependents in 1956. From that point on, Social Security became known as the Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance program.
The disability benefits part of Social Security was a natural extension of the program’s mission to enable workers to contribute toward a fund that would provide them income for times when they are no longer capable of working. Disability benefits, like Social Security retirement benefits, are based on a certain percentage of a worker’s previous earnings, rather than need, like some means-tested welfare programs.
Some policy experts who helped conceive of Social Security in the 1930s favored making disability benefits part of the original program, according to a history on the Social Security Administration website. They were overruled by colleagues concerned about the cost of adding those benefits, and critics in the private disability insurance industry, delaying its passage for an additional two decades.