Since 1956, the U.S. government has paid disability benefits to people with a serious illness or injury that leaves them unable to work full time.
Now the Trump administration is planning a regulation that would essentially redefine full-time work as 30 hours per week, instead of the usual 40, for purposes of determining whether someone is disabled. Fewer people would likely win benefits as a result.
The tighter eligibility standard, which has not been previously reported, is part of a draft rule that, if finalized, would bring sweeping changes to the Social Security Disability Insurance program. It would follow multiple other efforts by the Trump administration to cut social programs that help people afford food, health care and housing.
“Shifting the standard from 40 hours to 30 hours would definitely lead to fewer disability benefit awards,” said Kathleen Romig, a disability policy expert with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which opposes disability cuts.
The full draft rule, which has not been formally released yet, is the culmination of years of work by the Social Security Administration to update its data on the U.S. labor market ― and years of grumbling by Republicans and right-wing think tanks about how disability benefits coddle people who supposedly could get jobs.
Roughly 13 million Americans receive SSDI and Supplemental Security Income benefits, with the latter program offering lower payments that are based solely on need rather than someone’s work history.
If an applicant says they can’t engage in what Social Security considers “substantial gainful activity” ― earning at least $1,260 per month in 2020 ― the government first checks to see if their medical impairments are on a list of conditions that automatically qualify the person for benefits. If the impairments are severe but not on the list, then the government looks at the applicant’s age, work history and “residual functional capacity” ― their ability to work at a sedentary job where their disability would be less of an obstacle.
This latter stage of the process, when vocational factors are considered, is what the Trump administration wants to change. As part of its reform, the standard for what counts as “regular and continuing” work would no longer be eight hours a day, five days a week.
According to an outline of the proposal obtained by HuffPost, the administration reckons that the standard 40-hour threshold makes it too easy for disability applicants to show a diminished capacity just because they need to miss more than one hour per day or one day per week. Some applicants may still be able to earn more than the substantial gainful activity level in less time.
Romig said it’s unclear how the Social Security Administration could prove there are ample job opportunities for people with disabilities who need nonstandard schedules. “I’m afraid promulgating a rule like this one would have the effect of denying benefits to people who in fact don’t have opportunities for self-supporting work,” she said.
It’s just one part of the proposed regulation, which is still under internal review. Another component, previously reported by The Wall Street Journal, would limit the extent to which disability examiners consider a person’s age, and another would reduce the number of years that examiners look at when weighing a person’s work history.
The changes could affect a lot of people. Of the 557,000 favorable benefit decisions in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, 43.9% considered vocational factors.
Actuaries in the Social Security Administration are currently reviewing the draft rule to see how many beneficiaries would be affected and how much money the government might save by denying benefits, according to a source.
These vocational reforms follow a proposed increase in reviews of already awarded disability claims and a finalized regulation deeming the inability to speak English a non-factor for older claimants.
“I’m afraid promulgating a rule like this one would have the effect of denying benefits to people who in fact don’t have opportunities for self-supporting work.”
The Social Security Administration did not respond to requests for comment, but has said in the past that it doesn’t talk about unfinished draft regulations. In its official notice that it would be drafting the rule, which it said would be ready in June, the agency said the changes “would modernize our disability program consistent with current evidence and occupational information.”
The agency has been using an outdated directory of jobs in the labor market to evaluate claimants’ ability to shift to new lines of work. It’s in the midst of a long-running project to replace the directory with more current information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Mark Warshawsky, a deputy Social Security commissioner appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017, has argued that outdated medical listings and vocational standards have resulted in rising disability enrollment despite improved work opportunities for people with disabilities and better health and longevity for Americans in general.
Program enrollment increased sharply as a result of the Great Recession of 2007-2009, but has been declining since around 2014. Nevertheless, the reforms the administration is pursuing track closely with what Warshawsky proposed in a 2015 paper he co-wrote as a research fellow with the conservative Mercatus Center think tank.
The disability program “has been allowed to grow without sufficient limit, damaging the work ethic of this country and its government’s finances,” Warshawsky wrote back then. “The program needs the substantial reforms that we have proposed to make it fair, modern, and sustainable into the future for those workers who need it most.”