In the early 1980s, the Ronald Reagan administration terminated benefits for thousands of disabled people who were supposedly loafing on Social Security Disability Insurance instead of getting a job.
The cuts sparked a public outcry, state government protests, serious congressional pushback and court rulings restoring people’s benefits.
Now the Donald Trump administration is pursuing changes that disability advocates say could repeat those same mistakes.
In a proposed regulation, the Social Security Administration said in November that to “maintain appropriate stewardship of the disability program” it wants to do more frequent reviews checking that program enrollees are still disabled.
The administration is also reportedly considering a separate rule that would tighten initial eligibility standards for disability benefits. Both moves are part of the president’s general crackdown on programs that benefit poor people.
More than 8 million disabled American workers receive Social Security Disability Insurance, for which they must prove to the government that they experience from a severe disability that won’t go away within a year. Even after they’ve been awarded benefits, from time to time most recipients have to prove that they’re still unable to work in order to continue receiving benefits. How often reviews happen depends on the severity of a person’s conditions.
The Trump administration wants to make those “continuing disability reviews” more frequent, arguing that the current system fails to account for medical improvement among some recipients. And it said it would look particularly closely at disability claimants awarded benefits partly because their age and educational attainment made them less likely to be able to find work.
“It was frightening to people ― they hated to get letters from Social Security.”
Increasing the number of disability reviews also triggered the Reagan-era debacle.
As part of a long-running moral panic over supposedly undeserving Americans getting welfare, Congress in 1980 required the Social Security Administration to review nonpermanent disability claims every three years. Reagan loved to bash welfare, and his administration implemented the law with gusto. Instead of doing just 150,000 reviews each year, as had been done previously, the administration aimed for half a million.
It became a scandal almost immediately, as thousands discovered their benefits were being terminated.
“It was frightening to people ― they hated to get letters from Social Security because it was in the news all the time,” said Marty Ford, who worked at the time for the Washington, D.C., chapter of The Arc, a nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities. Ford is now a senior adviser with The Arc nationally.
The New York Times reported in 1982 that federal officials “acknowledge that several people have committed suicide after being told that they were losing disability benefits.”
One 1983 news story focused on Roy Benavidez, a Vietnam war hero Reagan had recognized with a Medal of Honor just two years prior. Social Security had reviewed his case and decided he could get a job despite the war injuries that left him with severe pain and shrapnel in his heart.
“I don’t like to use my Medal of Honor for political purposes or personal gain, but if they can do this to me, what will they do to all the others?” Benavidez said then, according to his 1998 obituary in the Times.
From 1982 through 1984, the Reagan administration reviewed about 1.2 million cases and sent out 490,000 termination notices, according to the Congressional Research Service. A whopping 200,000 of those terminations were reversed on appeal.
Class action lawsuits revealed what a federal judge described as an illegal “covert policy” to revoke benefits from people who’d been granted enrollment in part because of mental conditions, rather than solely because of physical disabilities. Officials believed such people ought to be able to do unskilled work.
“They used the cover of disability reviews which appeared to be legally authorized ... but they used it as a vehicle to actually change rules,” said Jonathan Stein, a former legal aid attorney who represented disability claimants in the ’80s.
Amid the uproar, the Reagan administration declared a moratorium on continuing disability reviews in 1984, and that year Congress passed a law disallowing terminations without substantial improvement in whatever medical condition had led to the initial award of benefits.
“If we flash-forward to the present, there is a parallel or similar thing that’s come in to play,” Stein said. “The Social Security Administration is using the cover of a CDR, which are authorized by Congress, but they are at the same time altering it in important ways.”
The Trump proposal would result in 2.6 million more reviews over a decade, at a cost of $1.8 billion ― which the administration said would save $2.6 billion by terminating benefits for an unspecified number of SSDI and Supplemental Security Income beneficiaries. Altogether there are more than 13 million beneficiaries of SSDI and SSI combined. (SSI helps people with more limited work histories and provides smaller benefits.)
With its proposals to cut food benefits, the Trump administration has insisted that former recipients will be better off if they’re forced to go get jobs. But with the disability proposal, the administration admitted it “cannot currently quantify” how many might find work. Past research on incomes of former disability recipients paints a somewhat grim picture, with low earnings and high poverty rates.
The draft regulation would not affect initial eligibility for disability benefits, but would subject some claimants to review every two years if the administration believes they are “likely” to see medical improvement. The rule specifies that certain cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma, would be considered likely to improve, as well as speech and anxiety disorders.
Other claimants would be included in the “improvement likely” category if they had been awarded benefits not solely because of their disability, but also because of factors such as age, education and work experience that affect their ability to find new jobs.
“Unfortunately, what we are seeing in the proposed regulations are similar mistakes made by SSA in the early 1980s,” Lowell Arye, who worked as a staffer on the House Select Committee on Aging in the 1980s, said in a formal comment on the Trump regulation. He said “the targeting of individuals” who won benefits partly because of vocational factors is similar to what the Reagan administration did when it targeted people with mental illness.
If the regulation is finalized ― which could happen later this year ― disability claimants would have far more recourse than they did in the 1980s, said Barbara Silverstone, director of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, largely because of the safeguards Congress enacted in 1984.
But Silverstone emphasized that the reviews aren’t easy. “It requires short essays about the beneficiary’s use of assistive devices, daily activities, and hobbies or interests,” she wrote in a letter to the Social Security administrator. “It requires a list of all medical providers with their contact information, the dates of the first and most recent appointments, and any treatments provided. All medications and tests, education, and vocational rehabilitation must be listed as well.”
Silverstone’s letter pointed to administrative data indicating that benefit terminations due to a simple failure to cooperate with a review had more than doubled as a percentage of all terminations from 2013 to 2016.
The Trump proposal was specifically designed “to demotivate and demoralize people from getting their disability benefits they earned,” said Alex Lawson, director of the liberal advocacy group Social Security Works.
A key difference between the 1980s and today is that while disability receipt had been rising then, it’s falling now. The total number of disabled workers receiving benefits peaked at 9 million in 2014; there were a half million fewer disabled worker beneficiaries in 2018, according to the latest data.
This story has been updated to include additional information about SSI.