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It's Not the 1970s

As Matthew Philips reports for Bloomberg Businessweek, the Social Security Disability Insurance program is "facing insolvency" in 2016, as it did in 1994, when lawmakers used a portion of collected payroll taxes to prevent the crisis that would have erupted had there been a cut in disability benefits.

The situation, however, is far from dire. It's likely that lawmakers will take similar measures next year, and that disability benefit payments will continue. But as Philips points out, we're unlikely to see the type of change we would need to put an end to going to the brink of insolvency in the first place.

But what would meaningful change look like? And would we want it?

Philips's article has a distinct "anti-entitlement" flavor. It is from those ranks - folks who use the word "entitlement" when referring to safety-net programs like Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid - from which "meaningful" change is most likely to come. It will come in the shape of assertions that people simply don't want to work, or that they aren't trying hard enough to find work.

Indeed, at the end of Philips's article, the apparent "bottom line" is that the SSDI program encourages people to take benefits rather than get out into the marketplace and find a job. "In the 1970s most new SSDI enrollees suffered from maladies such as heart disease and cancer," writes Philips. "Today, it's back pain and mental illness."

Philips appears to argue that what passes for "disabled" today wouldn't have in the 1970s. He may be right. But that doesn't account for the medical establishment's (and society's) understanding of injury and illness, and how disabling that injury or illness might be. Take mental health, for example. Even today, mental illness gets short shrift compared to something you can see and feel, like a compound fracture. And we're a long way from the 1970s.

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