The administration’s plan has set off alarm bells among liberals who see it as an attack on a vital social safety net.

The Trump Administration’s plan to place greater restrictions on disability benefits under Social Security is one of its better ones.


Under the proposal, laid out late last year in the Federal Register, the government would more actively review the claims of recipients to see whether they should continue receiving benefits. Specifically, it would create a new category of recipients who are deemed to be disabled but whose condition is likely to improve over time. People in this category would be subject to more frequent reviews and a greater likelihood of seeing their benefits disappear.


There’s good reason to believe the program has been stretched beyond its original intentions. In 2012, the Social Security Administration’s inspector general estimated to Congress that fraudulent claims were costing taxpayers nearly $1 billion a year. “We know there are individuals who will purposely withhold or fabricate information to collect government benefits they are not entitled to receive,” the inspector general said.


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Some of the fraudsters are people who fail to report salaries and pensions they are collecting alongside their disability benefits. Also of concern is the nature of claims. Several decades ago, the top cause was heart disease. Today, it is by far and away “musculoskeletal” problems. That’s a category heavy on back issues, which can be debilitating, or not so much. Millions of working Americans have back problems.


The administration’s plan has set off alarm bells among liberals who see it as an attack on a vital social safety net.


It’s true that more people would see their benefits vanish under this program, and increased scrutiny would lead to some paperwork headaches. But Social Security’s disability program was never intended to be a welfare program for displaced workers.


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In theory, the number of disabled persons should be relatively constant, impacted only by the size and age of the population. However, the number of people coming onto Social Security disability rolls surged with the last recession. The fact that more people are found to be disabled during recessions and fewer people are disabled in good times, even as the population ages, suggests that many people view the program as a kind of alternative to unemployment insurance.


What’s more, once people get accepted, they tend to stay in the program.


All told, the population of beneficiaries — the disabled and their dependents — grew from 8.3 million in 2005 to 11 million in 2013 before falling back to 10 million today.


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As most people know, Social Security faces a troubled financial outlook. Thanks to the enormous baby boom generation entering retirement, the program has been running a deficit every year for the past decade.


The administration’s disability changes would only marginally impact Social Security’s books. But they would be the only positive action taken to shore up the program since 1983.


The proposed changes should not be seen as a Trump effort to punish the poor. Rather, they should be seen as an effort to put some limits on a program that has become a broadly abused extension of unemployment benefits.


This guest editorial was originally published in USA Today, a sister newspaper within Gannett.