We pointed out back in March that Trump budget direct Mick Mulvaney displayed an alarming ignorance about Social Security disability benefits during an appearance on the CBS program “Face the Nation.”
Now it turns out that there was method to his muttering. In effect, Mulvaney was telegraphing that the Trump White House was planning to cut disability benefits sharply. The Trump budget released Tuesday includes $1.7 trillion in cuts to major social insurance and assistance programs, including food stamps, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and Social Security disability.
Any cut to disability would be a major violation of Trump’s oft-repeated campaign pledge not to cut Social Security, Medicaid or Medicare. Trump also broke that promise, by the way, by endorsing the American Health Care Act, the House Republican Obamacare repeal plan that incorporates a stunning $880 billion in Medicaid cuts.
It turns out that Mulvaney was setting up a flagrant deception during that “Face the Nation” appearance. He asked moderator John Dickerson, “Do you really think that Social Security disability insurance is part of what people think of when they think of Social Security? I don't think so.”Dickerson let the remark, which we described then as “a drive-by shooting” aimed at some of the nation’s neediest and most defenseless people, slide without comment.
But Mulvaney was tapping into a knowledge vacuum that appears to extend more deeply into the Washington press corps. Politico, which reports that the budget document will “avoid revamping Social Security and Medicare,” and the Associated Press, which says the budget “won’t touch Social Security or Medicare,” get snowed by the implication that a cut in disability isn’t a cut to Social Security.
A four-page “talking points” memo being circulated by the White House and published by Politico gives the game away, by stating the budget “does not cut core Social Security benefits.” (Emphasis ours.) This shows that on Face the Nation, Mulvaney was merely seeding the landscape with a rank deception.
At Axios, Jonathan Swan originally described Trump’s cuts as being “in line with his campaign promise” not to cut Social Security. Informed by Dylan Mathews of Vox that disability is Social Security, Swan at first doubled down, tweeting in response, “Isn't it [the] case that if you are disabled and have SSDI those payments end at retirement age? [W]hich is when Social Security kicks in.” (Later the statement about Trump’s promise was removed from the post and the description of Trump’s treatment of Social Security was changed to say the budget wouldn’t cut “Social Security payments to retirees.” So the dime dropped at Axios, eventually.)
Disability insurance is an inextricable part of Social Security. It’s a core part of the program, just like retirement benefits. It was created as an add-on to Social Security in 1956, under President Eisenhower. It’s financed by the payroll tax, and the reserve funds that cover both aspects of the program are more entwined than ever, thanks to a reform measure passed by Congress in 2015. Social Security’s financing structure is based on its role as a combined disability insurance and retirement program, and anyone who doesn’t know that shouldn’t be writing about it, much less managing it.
Mulvaney is merely deploying a classic divide-and-conquer strategy by depicting disability as somehow distinct from Social Security. Disability recipients have been consistently demonized by conservative politicians and inattentive journalists as layabouts and malingerers, just as the program has been described as out of control. Neither assertion is accurate, but that doesn’t stop them from being incessantly trotted out.
Mulvaney in his TV appearance invoked them again, calling disability “the fastest-growing program” and calling it “very wasteful.” In truth, disability rolls have been shrinking. That’s because the economic and demographic trends that sent the rolls higher in recent decades have ebbed, including the addition of more women to the workforce and the aging of the working population.
Nancy Altman of Social Security Works, a leading advocacy group, calls Mulvaney’s attempt to distinguish disability from Social Security “Orwellian,” and properly so. It’s nothing other than a ploy to slither out from a campaign promise that President Trump could not have made more explicitly.
One must ask: Where will the deceit stop? Trump and Mulvaney have no right to redefine the disability program as something other than Social Security. If they’re allowed to get away with it, what’s to stop them from declaring that survivor, dependent, and spousal benefits aren’t “core” Social Security benefits, and take a hacksaw to them too?