Senator Dianne Feinstein on Social Security disability income

Motivated by news that the Social Security disability trust fund could run dry soon, I wrote to my federal representatives. President Obama was the first to reply to me but I recently received a reply that more directly addresses my concern from Senator Dianne Feinstein. Here is what she had to say:

Dear David:

Thank you for writing to me about Social Security benefits for people with disabilities.  Your correspondence is important to me, and I welcome the opportunity to respond.

I recognize that millions of Americans with disabilities rely upon Social Security benefits to maintain their independence and live heathy, productive lives.  According to the most recent figures, 709,509 disabled workers, 12,586 spouses, and 128,447 children in California received Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) benefits in 2014, and more than 1.3 million Californians received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in 2013.  I hope that Congress will act to ensure the long-term solvency of these important programs.

The Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) retirement program and DI programs are funded largely by revenue from a dedicated payroll tax collected from both employers and employees and paid into each program’s respective trust fund to earn compounding interest.  The 2015 annual report by the Social Security Board of Trustees projects that DI trust fund reserves will be depleted by late 2016.  In the absence of Congressional action, this reserve depletion would force the Social Security Administration (SSA) to implement an across-the-board reduction in payments to DI beneficiaries by an estimated 20 percent.  This would mean that the average monthly DI benefit for July 2015 would be reduced from $1,022.16 to $817.73 per month.

In the past, Congress has routinely reallocated payroll tax revenue between the OASI trust fund that supports retirees and the much smaller DI trust fund, which supports people with disabilities and their families.  Congress has reallocated payroll revenue between the trust funds a total of 11 times since 1968.  In five instances Congress transferred payroll tax revenue from the DI trust fund to the OASI trust fund.  According to a recent analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a reallocation of payroll tax revenue to put the two trust funds on an even footing would expedite the OASI trust fund’s projected reserve depletion by one year (from 2034 to 2033) while extending the solvency of the DI trust fund by an estimated 17 years (from 2016 to 2033).

You may be interested to know that I am an original cosponsor of the “Social Security Earned Benefits Payment Act of 2015” (S.2090), which was introduced by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) on September 28, 2015.  This legislation would reallocate a part of payroll taxes to the Social Security Disability Insurance trust fund to ensure full benefits are paid through the early 2030s.  S.2090 currently awaits action by the Committee on Finance, of which I am not a member.

As you may know, the SSI program provides monthly cash assistance to low-income people who are disabled, blind, or elderly with no real financial assets to help those individuals achieve a basic standard of living.  Unlike OASI and DI, the SSI program is funded by general tax revenues from the U.S. Treasury and not Social Security payroll taxes.  As such, each year Congress authorizes taxpayer funds that are used to pay eligible SSI recipients.  Many SSI recipients who have worked long enough and paid payroll taxes are also eligible to receive Social Security benefits.

Please know that I will continue working with my Senate colleagues to preserve Social Security programs for the millions of Americans with disabilities and their families who count on these vital programs.

Again, thank you for your letter.  If you have any additional comments or questions, please feel free to contact my Washington, D.C., office at (202) 224-3841 or visit my website at http://feinstein.senate.gov.  Best regards.

Sincerely yours,
Dianne Feinstein

I commend Senator Feinstein for co-sponsoring S.2090. Let’s hope the senate Finance Committee advances the bill to the floor.

President Obama on Social Security

Motivated by news that the Social Security disability trust fund could run dry soon, I wrote to my federal representatives. So far, only President Obama replied. Although his reply doesn’t directly address my concerns about the disability trust fund, he shared his position on Social Security in general:

Dear David:

Thank you for writing. It’s clear you have faced great challenges, and I want you to know I am listening. I have heard from many Americans who are concerned about their financial security in retirement, and I want you to know I am listening.

As President, one of my top priorities is keeping Social Security a rock-solid, guaranteed progressive benefit that every American can rely on. However, a Social Security check often is not enough on its own. After a lifetime of hard work, too many Americans reach their golden years unable to supplement their Social Security and enjoy a secure retirement. At a time when Americans are largely responsible for making their own choices about how much to save and how to invest their savings, my Administration is making it easier to prepare for retirement. In every budget I’ve put forward since taking Office, I’ve proposed legislation that would give 30 million additional workers access to a workplace savings opportunity. And last year, the Treasury Department launched “myRA,” a simple, safe, and no-fee savings program that stays with you even if you switch jobs.

At the same time, families who act responsibly by building up their savings should be able to trust that the retirement advice they receive is in their best interest. But right now, outdated regulations allow brokers to put their own financial gain ahead of their clients’ retirement security—costing savers approximately $17 billion each year. That is why my Administration is updating the rules and requirements for retirement investment advice. The bottom line is that what you earn on the nest egg you’ve worked a lifetime to build should work for you, not anybody else.

Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts. A critical test of the strength of our economy is whether hardworking Americans feel confident in their retirement security. As long as I hold this Office, I’ll keep fighting to preserve the basic bargain that anyone who works hard all their life can enjoy a stable and secure retirement.

Sincerely,
Barack Obama

In all fairness, there’s little President Obama can do about the disability trust fund at this point. When the fund runs dry, he will have to make some executive decisions but he’ll nearly be leaving the Oval Office by then. In the meantime, he can only respond to what congress brings to the table.

What was once unusual is now commonplace

My twentieth anniversary of being quadriplegic came last week and I never realized I passed it by until it was in the rear-view mirror. On the afternoon of December 3rd, 1987, I was a fit, talented athlete cross-training for the ski season with some cycling. Before the end of the ride, my body was paralyzed below the shoulders. I haven’t walked since then and my power wheelchair is the only wheeled vehicle I ride anymore.

What was once totally foreign to me has now become commonplace. Even a year or two after sustaining a complete spinal cord injury, I would still frequently wonder why such a catastrophic injury would happen to me as I would observe in wonder at the surreal circumstances I was in. In the blink of an eye, I went from a life focused on sports and other physical activities to one devoid of athletic endeavors and reliant on intellectual or professional pursuits for achievement. I had to instantaneously change my lifestyle 180 degrees to find fulfillment.

After twenty years, this lifestyle must not be so novel to me anymore. Otherwise, how could this milestone anniversary have come and gone without me taking notice? Where being quadriplegic once was something that happens to other people, I now am that other person. I’ve become so accustomed to dealing with quadriplegia that it is no longer something I must dwell on just to get through my activities of daily living.

That’s not to say life is without struggle for me. On the contrary—I face countless challenges daily just trying to do those everyday things that able-bodied people take for granted (I know this because I, too, used to take them for granted). The difference is that I now face those struggles trying to realize self-actualization whereas the struggles were then just trying to achieve the physiological and safety needs from Maslow’s hierarchy. I guess I’ve discovered that dwelling on what I cannot do only gets in the way of achieving that which I can.

In the early years of my disability, I never would have risen above the barriers I faced to become a productive member of society without the strength, support, and love of my mother. To this day, she is still my foundation and has never failed to give of anything she can to continue supporting me. The rest of my tight-knit family has given me whatever other support I have needed to fully engage in an active and fulfilling life.

The first decade of disability was dedicated to rebuilding and learning to adapt. As a high school dropout, I didn’t expect to accomplish much professionally without a degree being a quadriplegic. It took me quite a few years to get an undergraduate degree and then an MBA. In the meantime, I had to learn how to have fun without participating in some sport. It turns out that the wheelchair seating is pretty good in some venues, so concerts continued to be a frequent leisure activity for me. I could watch sports just as well paralyzed as able-bodied. Watching movies was yet another way to pass the time.

The last decade of disability has been dedicated to rejoining the workforce and developing a career. Even with the growing awareness of people with disabilities in society, this is unquestionably the greatest challenge to conquer for someone with a severe disability. Although it’s likely subconscious, there is still a surprising amount of discrimination against people with disabilities in employment. Fortunately, I have been able to encounter a handful of progressive organizations that have overlooked my physical limitations and hired me for my capabilities. I have enjoyed working in a variety of different jobs this decade that were suited to my skills and knowledge such that I have been relatively successful at making valuable contributions to my employer. Hopefully the workforce’s exposure to me has increased the odds of the next young man with a severe disability coming along looking for a job to get it.

Now I’m managing a very successful business unit for an organization. I have led it to rapid growth and through substantial development. Of course, that means I’ve been very busy so, when the twentieth anniversary of my disability came along last week, I was too busy to remember it. I suppose that’s a good thing—had I not realized the accomplishments I’ve had in spite of being quadriplegic, I’d probably be sitting around home every weekday watching TV and the milestone would instead have loomed up on me like a big cloud.

Granted, I still occasionally think that quadriplegia has made my life rather dismal in many ways. At times like that, all I have to do is think about what life would be like living in a place like Darfur or even just a hundred miles away like the slums of Tijuana to realize that I’m really quite blessed. So here I go, looking forward to the next two decades with anticipation and determination to make them better than the last two.

Check back here at the end of 2027. If I write nothing whatsoever about the fortieth anniversary of my quadriplegia, it will mean either I’ve become fully self-actualized or someone discovers the cure to spinal cord injuries.