WASHINGTON - A government entitlement program is headed for insolvency in four years, and it’s not the one that members of Congress are talking about most.
The Social Security disability program’s trust fund is projected to run out of cash far sooner than the better-known Social Security retirement plan or Medicare. That will trigger a 21 percent cut in benefits to 11 million Americans - disabled people, their spouses, and children - many of whom rely on the program to stay out of poverty.
“It’s really striking how rapidly this is growing, how big it’s become and how D.C. is just afraid of it,’’ said Mark Duggan, a University of Pennsylvania economist and adviser to the Social Security Administration.
Part of the reason for the burgeoning costs is that the 77 million baby boomers projected to swamp federal retirement plans will reach the disability program first. That is because almost all boomers are at least 50 years old, the age at which someone is most likely to become disabled.
The growing costs are also a result of the economy, because when people can’t find work and run through their jobless benefits, many turn to disability for assistance.
“They’re desperate,’’ said Ken Nibali, a retired associate commissioner of the program. “Some who are marginal and struggling to have a low-paying job now literally have no options.’’ So, he said, “they figure, ‘I do have trouble working and I’m going to apply and see if I’m eligible.’ ’’
Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, said he has tried to interest fellow lawmakers in the issue, without much luck.
“Nobody wants to touch things where they can be criticized,’’ Coburn said, adding, “the fund is going bankrupt’’ and “then what are we going to do?’’
Applications to the disability program have risen more than 30 percent since 2007 - the last recession started in December of that year - and the number of Americans receiving disability benefits is up 23 percent.
More Americans receive disability benefits than 20 years ago though people are less likely to have physically demanding jobs, health care has improved, and the Americans With Disabilities Act bans discrimination against the handicapped.
“The weird thing is disability enrollment is going up like crazy’’ when “we should be able to help keep people in the workforce,’’ Duggan said.
Social Security comprises two programs: the retirement plan supporting 40 million senior citizens and 6 million survivors, and the disability insurance program created during the Dwight Eisenhower administration to prevent sick and injured workers from becoming destitute.
The disability program currently pays benefits averaging $1,111 a month, with the money coming from the Social Security payroll tax taken out of workers’ paychecks.
The program cost $132 billion last year, more than the combined annual budgets of the departments of Agriculture, Homeland Security, Commerce, Labor, Interior, and Justice.
That doesn’t include an additional $80 billion spent because disability beneficiaries become eligible for Medicare, regardless of their age, after a two-year waiting period.
The disability program, which has been spending more than it receives in revenue for four consecutive years, is projected to exhaust its trust fund in 2016, according to a Social Security trustees report released last month.
By comparison, the separate trust fund financing senior citizens’ Social Security benefits is projected to run out in 2035 while Medicare’s primary fund will be exhausted in 2024.
The retirement portion of Social Security costs $600 billion a year, while Medicare costs $560 billion annually.
Once the disability program runs through its reserve, incoming payroll tax revenue will cover only 79 percent of benefits, according to the trustees. Because the plan is barred from running a deficit, aid would have to be cut to match revenue.
Duggan said the disability plan has been running on autopilot for decades and lawmakers could find savings to help avoid the scheduled cuts. While federally financed, the program is administered by the states and disability rates among them vary widely.
West Virginia topped the list in 2010, with 9 percent of residents between ages 18 and 64 receiving aid. Utah and Alaska had the lowest rates at 2.8 percent.
People whose benefit applications are rejected can appeal to administrative law judges.