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Supreme Court Takes Away Social Security Disability from Poor Students

Thursday, December 8, 2005

In one of her farewell decisions as a Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor ruled for a unanimous Supreme Court yesterday that the federal government can collect delinquent student loans by withholding a claimant’s Social Security Disability benefits. The full decision in Lockhart v. United States is here. While legally sound, the practical effect on disability recipients does not seem one bit fair.
Let’s take the following real world example: John works for 20 years as a GM factory worker and then gets laid off. All those 20 years he paid into Social Security for disability and retirement benefits. Trying to better himself and find a new career, he enrolls in college to become an insurance claims adjuster. He takes out $7,500 per year in student loans to pay for tuition and books. In his sophomore year, he has a major heart attack which forces him to withdraw from his courses and prevents him from working. Since he is not enrolled in study, his loans come due. Because he can’t work due to his disability, he falls behind on his payments. Eventually, he files for Social Security Disability. While Social Security finds him qualified medically, they don’t pay him anything because they first want to recoup his delinquent student loans. Because John has no income and no Social Security Disability benefits now, he is forced to go on welfare. What’s wrong with this picture?
First, the government is forgetting that John already paid for his Social Security Disability benefits through payroll deductions during the 20 years he worked at GM. It’s his money! Social Security Disability is not welfare! This money was entrusted to the Social Security Administration to protect John if he became disabled. It’s like a forced savings account. How do they expect him to pay back his student loans if he cannot work? How do they expect him to live now? Poor John.
I’m all for going after student loan deadbeats if they are driving a Lexus and not paying their loans. Most of them won’t get hurt by the Social Security offset until retirement age. However, I would hope Congress would carve out an exception for the disabled so they can get by today. It would be the right thing to do

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