Funding for Social Security Disability Insurance is set to run out by 2016, and if no further action from Congress is taken, SSDI recipients could see a 20% reduction in benefits.

And as the de facto “back-up” plan for many American workers without substantial DB or DC workplace retirement savings, SSDI – like the entire Social Security system itself – offers a somewhat precarious mix of benefits, which employees would be smart to better supplement while still working.

Currently, benefits are modest, according to the Center for American Progress — an average of $1,140 a month, right above the U.S. poverty line. “SSDI can truly be the difference from being homeless,” says T.J. Sutcliffe, director of income and housing policy at The Arc of the United States, a national community-based organization advocating for and serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), adds that Social Security is more than just retirement and the current debate on the system’s future shouldn’t focus on how much to cut, but rather on retirement savings.

Brown says Social Security benefits have been labeled as handouts as part of the political acrimony, suggesting that his opponents tend to separate SSDI and attack it as “bad” Social Security, while the retirement aspects of Social Security are looked upon more favorably.

“We need to recognize these attacks for what they are — backdoor attempts to weaken Social Security by dismantling disability insurance,” Brown said Tuesday during a speech in Washington. D.C.

Also see: 4 retirement myths and realities

Most employees pay 6.2% of their incomes for Social Security – 5.3% for the Old Age and Survivors Insurance trust fund and 0.9% to the SSDI trust fund.

When incomes exceed $117,000, they are no longer taxed for Social Security. But Brown and others say that lifting this “earnings cap” could be one solution to end fears that the combined disability programs will see reserves run out by 2033.

Stephen Goss, chief actuary with the Social Security Administration, says 9 million workers are receiving disability insurance benefits, including almost 2 million dependents. He says the strains on the SSDI benefits will begin to lessen as the baby boom generation moves into retirement age and leave the workforce.

Goss says the sky is not falling, and costs are not out of control, but that further changes will be needed for the program’s long-term sustainability, with a continued eye to current employees making a more substantial contribution to better fund the system.

Virginia Reno, vice president for income security at the National Academy of Social Insurance, says there are two paths Congress can take: Raise the DI contribution rate or shift part of the OASI. According to a recent survey from NASI, a majority of working citizens favor the revenue increases.

Raising the SSDI tax rate by 0.2% would make SSDI solvent for the next 75 years, according to the National Academy of Social Insurance.

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