Every year, the President of the United States sends a proposed budget to Congress. Congress can accept it, reject it, or modify it. Very rarely does the final budget that is passed resemble what the President requested, but what the President puts into his proposed budgets can tell you a lot about where his priorities are.
For the past four years, President Donald Trump has proposed a budget that slashes funding for Social Security, specifically Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) in varying amounts. There is no question that the Social Security trust fund is in trouble: if current trends continue, the trust fund will exhaust its reserves by 2035. That does not mean Social Security benefits (retirement or disability) will cease to exist, but it does mean that people will receive something less than 100% of what they deserve with each benefit check.
It is easy to say that the problem can be remedied by cutting funding for Social Security across the board. And reduced funding for Social Security, among other things, is what President Trump has proposed all four years of his presidency. He has not gone after Social Security retirement benefits directly—that would be in direct violation of his campaign promises leading up to the 2016 election. He has chosen instead to try to make a distinction between retirement benefits and disability benefits.
Reducing Social Security retirement benefits is a deeply unpopular tactic to reduce government spending, although for years the GOP has proposed that the federal retirement age be moved closer to age 70 than the current range of 65-67. People who cannot retire until they reach age 70 will enjoy fewer years of retirement and, therefore, will collect less money from the government.
Instead, President Trump has repeatedly suggested that Americans receiving SSDI benefits don’t deserve them because they are either not really disabled, not disabled enough, or simply lazy and opportunistic. That portrayal could not be further from the truth: 9.9 million Americans receive SSDI benefits, including children whose parent or parents have died and disabled workers who rely partially or entirely on their monthly disability benefits for income. SSDI already has stricter standards to qualify for benefits than other government agencies or private insurance plans. Of SSDI recipients who obtain benefits by age 55, 1 in 6 men and 1 in 8 women will die within 5 years of initial receipt of benefits, so not exactly a population that appears ready and able to return to work.
President Trump’s budget calls for a reduction of $4.8 trillion in federal spending. It increases defense spending and, in larger amounts, funding for artificial intelligence. It also calls for a $45 billion reduction in Social Security spending over the next decade, largely by insisting on even stricter criteria to qualify for benefits, pushing return-to-work programs, and instituting more frequent Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs). And Medicare? That government program will be reduced by $505 billion over the next ten years under the proposed budget.
At this point, you might be wondering if any past presidents have tried to reduce Social Security. President Ronald Reagan implemented similar changes during his administration that resulted in 500,000 disabled people losing their benefits, including those suffering from Down syndrome, terminal cancer, cerebral palsy, and serious mental illness because they no longer qualified as disabled under his revised criteria. Thousands of people died, many from suicide. 18 states refused to implement his program, and the situation got so bad that Congress unanimously voted to end the program in 1984.
Before you panic, understand that President Trump’s budget likely will not pass, just like the last three of his proposals have not passed. Slashing Social Security is not a winning strategy in a re-election campaign. But, more importantly, the House of Representatives have pledged loudly and continuously to reject any budget that undermines an essential financial lifeline for so many citizens so severely.