Disabling common sense

In this May 8, 2008 file photo, blank U.S. Treasury checks are seen on a roll at the Philadelphia Financial Center, which disburses payments on behalf of federal agencies, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

There’s rarely been a better example of the stereotypical by-the-book bureaucrat than those Social Security officials who granted disability status to Puerto Ricans because they can’t speak English.

That’s right. They were viewed as disabled because they can’t speak English while living in Puerto Rico, where 95 percent of residents mainly speak Spanish.

Of course, a lack of English fluency is clearly not an impediment that should make a resident in that U.S. territory eligible for Social Security disability payments.

The response from Social Security officials to the agency’s inspector general was instructive: The SSA applies the rules the same, across the board.

“SSA managers at various disability decision levels stated Social Security is a national program, and the grids must be applied to the national economy, regardless of local conditions,” the audit said.

Or in this instance, don’t let reality clog the bureaucratic machinery.

The inspector general cited 218 cases in evidence, though the exact number of those granted disability status couldn’t be determined.

Social Security disability rolls soared during the recent recession, suggesting a lack of stringency in the process by which disability is granted.

Both Social Security and its disability program are heading for a fiscal train crash, but the rapid expansion in disability payments has made the financial health of that program even more tenuous.

This report reveals a minuscule part of the problem, but it is instructive as to the mindset of officials as they apply the law, and as they parcel out the agency’s diminishing assets.

If there’s anything positive to take from the IG’s report, it’s that Social Security officials acknowledged that their rules need adjusting.

It is cold comfort knowing that it took a full-blown investigation to bring them to such an obvious conclusion.