Media Falsely Claim White House Budget Spares Social Security From Cuts

The White House's proposed Fiscal Year 2018 budget violates Donald Trump's promise not to cut Social Security benefits.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 23:  Stacks of President Donald Trump's FY2018 budget proposal are seen during a photo availability May 23, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. President Trump has sent his FY2018 budget proposal request to the Congress.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Stacks of President Donald Trump's FY2018 budget proposal are seen during a photo availability in Washington, on May 23, 2017. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The White House’s proposed Fiscal Year 2018 budget violates Donald Trump’s promise not to cut Social Security benefits.

It includes a $72.5 billion reduction over 10 years for spending on the disabled, including by decreasing spending on the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program.

SSDI has been administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA) since Congress authorized it in 1956, and has long been a central component of the popular social insurance program.

So cutting it is a cut to Social Security benefits. But that’s not how many in the major media are reporting on Trump’s budget proposal.

For instance, on CNN, host Wolf Blitzer asked CNNMoney senior writer Tami Luhby if the budget cuts Social Security. “No. He is saving Social Security, or he’s not touching Social Security,” Luhby replied.

A wide variety of outlets made the same or similar claims:

  • The Hill: “It would not touch Social Security and Medicare, which President Trump promised to leave alone during his campaign.”
  • CBS News: “In keeping with his campaign promise, Mr. Trump would leave core Social Security benefits and Medicare untouched.” [The use of “core” appears intended to carve out disability.]
  • Fox News: “President Trump is submitting a budget that balances in ten years, making many of the tough choices to get the nation’s finances back on track without touching Social Security or making changes to Medicare beyond rooting out fraud.”
  • ABC News: “Trump’s budget plan promises to balance the federal ledger by the end of a 10-year window, even while exempting Social Security and Medicare retirement benefits from cuts.” [“Retirement benefits” would appear to be an attempt to exclude disability, though the distinction is no doubt lost on those who rely on it.]
  • Voice of America: “The budget proposal also follows Trump’s campaign promises to not to cut Social Security, a government-run old age pension program, or Medicare, which helps the elderly pay for doctors, hospitals and medicine.”

At a briefing for reporters on Monday, Trump budget chief Mick Mulvaney defended the cuts to disability as not breaking Trump’s promise. “If you ask 999 people out of a thousand, they’d tell you Social Security disability is not part of Social Security,” he claimed.

But Kathleen Romig, a policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), who previously worked at the SSA for eight years, dismissed the idea that cutting SSDI is not cutting Social Security.

“It’s absurd to claim that Social Security Disability Insurance is not part of Social Security — it’s right there in the name! If you want to get technical, the proper name of the program is Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance,” she told The Intercept in an email. “Workers pay into Social Security to protect themselves and their families if they retire, if a disability cuts their careers short, or if they die leaving family members to support. They earn Social Security benefits, including Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, by working and paying into the system.”

It wasn’t impossible to figure out what Trump was doing. Benjy Sarlin at NBC identified the cut to Social Security and at HuffPost and Vox, Daniel Marans and Dylan Matthews, respectively, focused their coverage on the cut.

And Trump country will be hit particularly hard. Of the 10 states with the highest percentage of population on disability, nine went for Trump and the 10th, Maine, split its electors between Trump and Hillary Clinton.

It’s unclear exactly how the cuts would be implemented if enacted, but the budget item related to the disability spending cuts is labeled “test new approaches to increase labor force participation,” which suggests an approach that leans toward work requirements as a way to shrink rolls.

It will be a challenge for Trump to enact the cuts he wants. He has threatened a government shutdown in the fall if he doesn’t get a better deal from Democrats than he did the last time around, but he will likely have even less leverage then than he had this spring. And this spring’s budget included little of what Trump demanded.

The federal government spent $143 billion on SSDI in 2015, which is primarily financed by the Social Security payroll tax.  This totals around 4 percent of the federal budget. The average monthly benefit for disabled workers in January 2017 was $1,171.25.

It is already a difficult program to enroll in; SSA rejects a majority of those who apply for disability payments. The CBPP notes that fewer than 400 of 1,000 initial applications for approval are eventually accepted.

Top photo: Stacks of President Donald Trump’s FY2018 budget proposal are seen during a photo availability in Washington, on May 23, 2017.

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