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Donald Trump's budget proposal breaks his promise to not cut Social Security

Reports indicate he’s targeting benefits for disabled workers.

Seniors Rally In Support Medicare, Social Programs In Chicago Scott Olson/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

One of Donald Trump’s most consistent positions throughout the presidential election was that he would not, under any circumstances, cut Social Security. Let’s roll the tape:

He’s even challenged other Republicans on the issue, telling WROK radio in Wisconsin, “Paul [Ryan] wants to knock out Social Security, knock it down, way down. He wants to knock Medicare way down. … I want to keep Social Security intact. … I’m not going to cut it, and I’m not going to raise ages, and I’m not going to do all of the things that they want to do. But they want to really cut it, and they want to cut it very substantially, the Republicans, and I’m not going to do that.”

But reports indicated that his new budget, set to be unveiled Tuesday, will violate this promise in a rather flagrant fashion. Axios's Jonathan Swan reports that the 2018 budget proposal will include $1.7 trillion in cuts to mandatory spending programs over the next 10 years, "from programs including SNAP (food stamps), CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program), and SSDI (Disability Insurance)." But Swan obfuscates the issue by saying the plan, "won't reform Social Security or Medicare — in line with his campaign promise.”

Let’s be extremely clear about something: SSDI stands for Social Security Disability Insurance. It is part of the Social Security program. While in the public mind, “Social Security” usually connotes payments you receive in retirement based on your prior earnings, Social Security also encompasses a program compensating past workers who develop disabilities that prevent them from participating in the workforce. That’s disability insurance, the program that Trump’s budget is set to cut.

The DI program is more politically vulnerable than Old-Age and Survivors’ Insurance (OASI), the retirement component of Social Security. The elderly are extremely well-organized through the AARP and other groups, and have impressive voter turnout, whereas disabled people tend to be low-income and, because they are incapable of working, lack political voice through unions and other groups.

Due primarily to demographic factors, the program grew in enrollment in recent years. It’s since leveled off, but the growth has led to the program being targeted for cuts, with some mainstream news outlets like This American Life and the Washington Post issuing stories arguing that it’s become a magnet for abuse. Former Social Security Administration commissioners, who actually ran the program, have strongly challenged this narrative, noting that fewer than 40 percent of people who apply get benefits, and many people who do have disabilities are rejected; many rejected applicants spend years appealing and reapplying until they can get help.

Benefits are typically quite modest. In March 2017, the average monthly benefit for a disabled worker was $1,171.52, or little over $14,000 a year.

There are definitely steps that can be taken to help disabled people find and keep work. Letting disabled people with above-poverty earnings buy into Medicaid, so they can get long-term supports and services that help them keep working, would be a good step, as would subsidized jobs for disabled people, more funding for vocational rehab programs, and a partial disability benefit available for disabled people who can work part-time if they get some additional assistance.

But all these things cost money. They require actually investing in reducing barriers that keep people with severe disabilities out of the workforce. And they require not actively cutting Medicaid, as Trump and Republicans’ health care plan would do to the tune of $880 billion — another case where Trump was flagrantly breaking a campaign pledge.

By contrast, simply hacking and slashing at the disability program without doing anything to ease the transition into work is guaranteed to worsen hardship among people with disabilities. It breaks a crucial campaign promise of Trump’s, and does so in a particularly cruel fashion.

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