Language-Based Disability Criteria Has No Place in Modern, Pluralistic America

Eisenhower-era America would strike modern-day Americans as truly bizarre. Washington, D.C. or New York City denizens of 2019 sent through a time machine would find that, sixty years ago, hardly a non-English word was uttered around town. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) answering debate questions in Spanish show how times have truly changed. Despite the proliferation of languages spoken everyday across the country, the federal government still considers English proficiency – or lack thereof – when deciding whether to grant disability benefits. To honor America’s emergence as a pluralistic nation, policymakers should scrap language considerations from the disability “grid” and reserve disability dollars for Americans that truly need them. Spanish and a host of other languages should be seen as a credit – not as a detriment – to the U.S. economy.

When Congress passed a full-blown disability program in the mid-fifties, immigration was hardly a factor in shaping the landscape of America. Immigrants represented less than 7 percent of the population, about half of their proportion now. The wave of immigration to America at the turn of the twentieth century, in which millions of Americans-to-be passed through the halls of Ellis Island, had long since ebbed. America had yet to experience the wave of Hispanic immigration that wouldn’t begin for another thirty years. In that placid environment, it made sense to design a disability system to accommodate non-English speakers that found themselves completely out of place in a relatively homogenous society and workforce.

Fast forward to 2019 when Latino immigrants in cities across the country, such as Los Angeles and New York, can find work in their native language. Moreover, bilingualism is now a boon to employment prospects; bilingual workers can earn anywhere from 5 to 20 percent more than their one-language speaking peers. Despite this sea change in American linguistic diversity, the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) system still assesses applicants’ educational qualifications, including “how well the claimant is able to communicate in English since this ability is often acquired or improved by education.” This outdated determinations process has resulted in hundreds of cases in Puerto Rico where applicants used their Spanish-speaking abilities to get thousands of dollars per year in disability benefits. According to an inspector general report on the issue, the benefits flowed freely “even though Puerto Rico residents may be able to find local work with their Spanish-speaking skills.”

These antiquated guidelines are expensive, costing taxpayers around $500 million per year. But the real economic costs extend far beyond the Treasury. Many beneficiaries of the SSDI language rules are perfectly capable of productive contributions to the workplace and can lead the way in international business relationships. As workers grow more productive each year, the costs of keeping workers on the sidelines only increase.

Fortunately, the Trump administration seems to be on the cusp of changing this fatally flawed policy. Because the “U.S. workforce has become more linguistically diverse and work opportunities have expanded for individuals who lack English proficiency,” the Social Security Administration is expected to nix language as an evaluation criteria as early as this summer. If policymakers get their way, hundreds of thousands of SSDI applicants will be given a greater incentive to participate in an ever-more-prosperous economy and taxpayers would save nearly $5 billion over the next decade.

This, of course, is only a tiny fraction of the $150 billion that Americans pay out each year in disability benefits. But every person unjustly on the disability rolls means one genuinely disabled person cannot get the help that they need. Policymakers must do everything in their power to ensure that SSDI recipients are genuinely in need, using criteria that only consider genuine disabilities. Proficiency in other languages is a boon – not a detriment or disability – for the millions of American workers that know languages beside English. It’s time to acknowledge their benefit and contribution to the American workplace by ditching outdated Social Security Administration rules.

Ross Marchand is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. He focuses on a range of issues, ranging from health-care reform to internet regulation to Postal Service-related issues. Ross is an alumnus of the Mercatus Center MA Fellowship at George Mason University, where he received his MA in economics in 2016. He has interned for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, analyzing and blogging on a variety of public policy issues.
Catalyst articles by Ross Marchand