- - Monday, March 31, 2014

Swindlers are drawn to big government like flies on watermelon, honey and other sweets. Bureaucrats hold a bottomless purse, and they’re not particular about what happens to the cash within. It is, after all, someone else’s money.

James W. Smith of Hermantown, Minn., was until recently one of America’s most eloquent voices for awareness of Alzheimer’s disease. In his mid-40s, he claimed to be battling early onset of the debilitating and feared disease. He organized candlelight vigils and spoke with lawmakers to generate contributions and support for those suffering with the disease. He was hailed a hero.

Eventually, his symptoms appeared to worsen, and his activism waned. Mr. Smith struggled to answer simple questions, and he couldn’t maintain personal hygiene or drive himself. Or so he said.

The facts were that Mr. Smith, an information technology supervisor for the state of Minnesota, never had dementia. He was lying, putting on a good show to pocket $6,773 a month in Social Security disability payments.

He left his wife and began living large on the money he had accumulated. By the time Social Security workers caught onto the con, he had managed to dupe taxpayers of $144,293 between 2006 and 2010.

Last year, Mr. Smith pleaded guilty to stealing government funds and awaits sentencing.

For every person like James W. Smith, caught ripping off the Social Security disability program, hundreds get away. The National Bureau of Economic Research finds that disability payments and services are worth more than $300,000 over a recipient’s lifetime.

According to Our Generation, a good-government group leading the charge for reform of the Social Security Disability Insurance system, more than half of the new Social Security disability claims are based on mental or musculoskeletal disorders.

Such claims are easy to fake, difficult to diagnose and hard to disprove, creating an easy opening for shysters, schemers and other evildoers.

The Social Security Administration’s disability scheme rewards applicants with disabilities for not working. In 1989, 29 percent of Americans reporting disabilities worked. Today, that number has dropped to just 16 percent.

It’s not that disabilities are getting worse, it’s that benefits are more generous and the federal government encourages people who could work to stay idle at home. That not only harms taxpayers, but it robs many disabled Americans of enriched and happier lives.

Disability benefits represent Social Security’s fastest-rising costs, increasing from 10 percent of all Social Security costs in 1990 to more than 18 percent today. Americans shell out $135 billion every year to fund the federal disability system for 8.7 million participants. Both numbers are rising because new rules make it easier to qualify for disability benefits.

The Social Security disability system is projected to go broke in 2017. There’s scant time to fix the system.

Economists Richard Burkhauser of Cornell and Mary Daly of the Federal Reserve recently proposed a solution, rewarding employers who keep individuals with disabilities on the job with lower disability payroll taxes. Doing so would encourage more people with disabilities who can and want to work to continue working.

That’s a better way to save money and help the disabled without all of us becoming accomplices to con men.