The disability program is also being hit by an aging population — disability rates rise as people get older — as well as a system that encourages people to apply for more generous disability benefits rather than waiting until they qualify for retirement.
Retirees can get full Social Security benefits at age 66, a threshold gradually rising to 67. Early retirees can get reduced benefits at 62. However, if you qualify for disability, you can get full benefits, based on your work history, even before 62.
Also, people who qualify for Social Security disability automatically get Medicare after two years, even if they are younger than 65, the age when other retirees qualify for the government-run health insurance program.
Congress tried to rein in the disability program in the late 1970s by making it tougher to qualify. The number of people receiving benefits declined for a few years, even during a recession in the early 1980s. Congress, however, reversed course and loosened the criteria, and the rolls were growing again by 1984.
The disability program "got into trouble first because of liberalization of eligibility standards in the 1980s," said Charles Blahous, one of the public trustees who oversee Social Security. "Then it got another shove into bigger trouble during the recent recession."
Today, about 13.6 million people receive disability benefits through Social Security or Supplemental Security Income. Social Security is for people with substantial work histories, and monthly disability payments average $927. Supplemental Security Income does not require a work history but it has strict limits on income and assets. Monthly SSI payments average $500.
As policymakers work to improve the disability system, they are faced with two major issues: Legitimate applicants often have to wait years to get benefits while many others get payments they don't deserve.
Last year, Social Security detected $1.4 billion in overpayments to disability beneficiaries, mostly to people who got jobs and no longer qualified, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
Congress is targeting overpayments.
The deficit reduction package enacted this month would allow Congress to boost Social Security's budget by about $4 billion over the next decade to invest in programs that identify people who no longer qualify for disability benefits. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that increased enforcement would save nearly $12 billion over the next decade.