Friday, January 30, 2015

Dear NASI: What’s Behind Door #4?

The National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI), of which I’m a nominal member, published a blog post “clarifying the choices” available to reform the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which is projected to run short of funds in 2016. William J. Arnone, the Chair of NASI’s Board, and G. Lawrence Atkins, NASI’s President, point to three ways to strengthen the disability program’s finances.

These include:

  1. Transfer tax revenues from Social Security’s retirement program to the disability program;
  2. Raise the payroll tax rate for the disability program; or
  3. Raise taxes for both the retirement and disability programs.

That’s it? Those are my only choices? What’s behind door #4?

Arnone and Atkins make no mention of disability reforms such as those passed in the Netherlands in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which created incentives for employers to provide accommodations for workers with disabilities and required workers to undergo rehabilitative services before they could apply for disability benefits. The Netherlands once was a disability basket-case, with among the highest disability rates in the world. Today, they’ve reduced their intake of disability cases by 60%. Worth mentioning?

Reform proposals in the U.S. draw from these experiences. One plan developed for the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution by David Autor of MIT and Mark Duggan of Stanford would require employers to cover the initial period of disability, during which time workers would receive rehabilitative services. Likewise, Richard Burkhauser of Cornell and Mary Daly of the San Francisco Federal Reserve, in a book published by the American Enterprise Institute, would institute “experience rating” for employers’ disability payroll taxes, such that employers who keep disabled employees on the job are rewarded with lower taxes.

The bipartisan Social Security Advisory Board has stated that the disability program should be reformed to “support an integrated approach that provides and emphasizes an alternate path — one directed to self-support, independence, and contribution that can help those who might, by taking that path, avoid, delay, or minimize their need for dependence on the programs of last resort.”

There’s been a tremendous amount of research work on disability in recent years. For an ostensible research organization to bypass all of that and reflexively turn to tax increases and only tax increases strikes me as bizarre.

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