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Sen. Tom Coburn's claim on percentage of SSDI, SSI recipients is on the mark

The statement

"One in 19 Americans today get SSDI or SSI. That's one in 19 Americans (who) are disabled."

Sen. Tom Coburn, Dec. 1, 2010, in a meeting of the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission

The ruling

At a meeting of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform — the Simpson-Bowles commission tasked with finding a solution to deficits — one panel member, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., cited disability payments as an example of government spending "out of control."

"We've created dependency," he said. "And one great example is one in 19 Americans today get SSDI or SSI. That's one in 19 Americans (who) are disabled, and when the law says you're only disabled if there's no job in the economy you can perform, and we don't address that issue in this plan."

We won't take sides on whether SSDI and SSI should be modified, but we were intrigued by the idea that more than 5 percent of Americans get payments from one program or the other. If Coburn is right, these programs cover more than the percentage of Americans who are of Asian-American heritage (4.5 percent), more than double the number of American Jews (approximately 2 percent) and five times the number of American Indians (1 percent). So we decided to see whether Coburn was right.

First, some background.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is funded by Social Security taxes paid by workers, employers and the self-employed. To be eligible for SSDI, a worker must have earned sufficient credits in the Social Security system. Typically, a worker will get benefits if he or she becomes blind or disabled, or if a now-deceased spouse earned SSDI. The program is set to pay out almost $124 billion in benefits this year.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is paid with general revenues, with funds going to adults or children who are disabled or blind, have limited income and resources and meet certain other requirements. The federal government appropriated almost $46 billion for its share of benefits this year.

Supporters say the programs provide needed help to the most vulnerable Americans. Critics point to increasing costs and the risk of fraud.

For consistency, we looked at the 2009 annual reports for each program because both offered statistics for the same month — December 2009. For that month, SSDI benefits were paid to 8.9 million recipients. SSI paid benefits that same month to 7.7 million people. Combined, that works out to 16.6 million people receiving benefits from one of the two programs that month.

Divide that figure by the total United States population in 2009 of 307 million people, and it works out to be 5.4 percent, or just slightly more than one out of every 19 Americans.

But wait. Let's look at how many people collect both SSDI and SSI. We couldn't find those numbers for December 2009, but for November 2010, the overlap was about 1.8 million people. Assuming that the number was roughly similar for December 2009, then 4.8 percent of the U.S. population receives either SSDI or SSI — or one out of every 20.7 people. So Coburn is very close. We rate his claim Mostly True.

Edited for print. For more, go to

Sen. Tom Coburn's claim on percentage of SSDI, SSI recipients is on the mark 12/17/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 17, 2010 9:42pm]
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