Every election cycle, candidates who want to burnish their fiscal hawk credentials warn that entitlements are going to run out of money. This election cycle is different: The Social Security disability trust fund really is in danger of running low before it's over. According to Social Security's actuary, if nothing is done by late 2016, the fund that paid $141 billion to disability beneficiaries will be able to meet just 81 percent of its obligations.
Most Republicans want to use this crisis to reform Social Security, arguing that a disability system that's seen enrollment nearly treble over 30 years is simply unsustainable. Some have talked about this more elegantly than others. In a January visit to New Hampshire, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul half-joked that "over half the people on disability are anxious or their back hurts."
Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who is running a populist, pro-entitlement campaign– far out of step with most Republicans–said last week that the disability program needed to be treated sensitively. "We should approach it that people are innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around," he told Bloomberg. "You should make the government prove that a person isn't in need, rather than the person having to absolutely prove that they are."
On Monday, after another event in New Hampshire, Paul expanded on his disability position by arguing that advocates for the disabled needed to collaborate on cost-cutting ideas.
"I think the first thing to acknowledge is that there’s not money for all of these Social Security disability programs," Paul told Bloomberg in an interview. "It runs out of money this year. [The program does not hit a shortfall until late 2016, according to the actuary.]
"The overall Social Security system pays out more than it takes in. So I think it’s really without question that all of these programs need to be reviewed to make them financially sound. There are people who are truly disabled, so the program should first of all prioritize those who are truly disabled."
Paul's solution: Persuade advocates to stop just clamoring for more funding and start thinking about efficiency. "I think it’s important that all the advocates for disability realize that it’s in their best interest to make sure that people who are disabled are receiving money," he said. "So, there’s a lot of reforms that we’ve talked about–having more certainty in annual exams, having the exams done by doctors who have not seen the patient and can be objective in confirming the disability. There’s a lot of reform we can do, and the key is getting the advocates involved."