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The SSDI return-to-work gap

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Bob Williams, a Social Security Administration (SSA) official, today put a House hearing  in a new light simply by testifying.

Williams, the associate commissioner for the SSA’s Office of Employment Support Programs, spoke at a hearing on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) return-to-work programs organized by the Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee.

Williams, who has cerebral palsy and uses an electronic device to communicate, runs the SSA’s Ticket to Work program, the return-to-work program for people who are collecting SSDI benefits.

Williams had the rapt attention of both Republicans and Democrats on the panel as he made his remarks.

Williams suggested that policymakers need to think more about helping to create career paths for people with disabilities, not simply jobs.

“There are about 4 million Americans with disabilities who are employed,” Williams said. “Most make less than $20,000 annually. I would suggest that a critical question we all need to grapple with is how do we reward these workers. It is not just about services. It’s about creating opportunities for them to get and keep good jobs and careers that lead to better, self-supporting futures.”

Wiilliams has a bachelor’s degree from George Washington University and has held high-powered policymaking jobs for years, but members of the panel said they were inspired by the effort he himself has made to have a career.

“Well said,” Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., told Williams. “You’re a champion.”

Lawmakers spoke frequently about reports of people without serious disabilities abusing the SSDI program.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., said the country needs to “slice and dice” people who get SSDI benefits without really qualifying for the benefits.

“In a bipartisan way, we want to descend on these folks,” Becerra said. “We have to go after them. They ruin it for everyone.”

Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, recalled golfing every week with an SSDI beneficiary who carried his own clubs on the golf course.

“That’s definitely a guy who could get back to work, but he didn’t want to go back to work,” Renacci said.

But Renacci said that he also has seen a report indicating that, even though the percentage of SSDI recipients who earn enough through work to leave the program is less than 0.5 percent, about 40 percent say they want to work.

“We should figure out how we can make things better for that 40 percent,” Renacci said.

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