This article is for one of my sisters. She truly believes that there are a fairly large number of “takers” in America who are abusing the social safety net that is supposed to back up the poor and our seniors. I decided that I needed to update my database in relation to how the social safety net is working since benefits are being put on cards. The government doesn’t use welfare checks anymore. They use cards that theoretically can be swiped at participating ATM’s. The welfare recipient then has cash in hand to buy life’s essentials and support the family and can spend that money like any other citizens, without stigma. One problem with this system is that people can spend this cash on alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs and still leave their family wanting. Another problem with this system is that the government farmed this business of ATM cards out to private corporations like CITI Bank and these corporations are taking fees out of people’s welfare checks at ATM’s (when the machines actually work), or at banks when the ATM’s don’t function as planned. While this is interesting and worrisome, it doesn’t really get at my sister’s point about whether or not America has collected a fair number of “takers”. So here’s the link for that welfare card article and we will push on.
Then I found an article from npr.com that looks more like it contains the information we need to get to the bottom of this. The article is called Unfit For Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America by Chana Joffe-Walt. It begins “In the past three decades, the number of Americans who are on disability has skyrocketed. The rise has come even as medical advances have allowed many more people to remain on the job, and new laws have banned workplace discrimination against the disabled. Every month, 14 million people now get a disability check from the government.
Obviously this is what my sister has been talking about, although she was not sure if welfare was the problem, or disability, or both.
This article goes on to say – “The federal government spends more money each year on cash payments for disabled former workers than it spends on food stamps and welfare combined. Yet people relying on disability payments are often overlooked in discussions of the social safety net. The vast majority of people on federal disability do not work. Yet because they are not technically part of the labor force, they are not counted among the unemployed.
In other words, people on disability don’t show up in any of the places we usually look to see how the economy is doing. But the story of these programs – who goes on them, and why, and what happens after that – that is, to a large extent, the story of the US economy. It’s the story not only of an aging workforce, but also of a hidden, increasingly expensive safety net.
The author tells this little anecdote from research conducted in Hale County, Alabama:
Sonny Ryan, a retired judge in town, didn’t hear disability cases in his courtroom. But the subject came up often. He described one exchange he had with a man who was on disability but looked healthy.
“Just out of curiosity, what is your disability?” the judge asked from the bench.
“I have high blood pressure,” the man said.
“So do I,” the judge said. “What else?”
“I have diabetes.”
“So do I.”
There’s no diagnosis called disability. You don’t go to the doctor and the doctor says, “We’ve run the tests and it looks like you have disability.” It’s squishy enough that you can end up with one person with high blood pressure who is labeled disabled and another who is not.
The author tells us”
As far as the federal government is concerned, you’re disabled if you have a medical condition that makes it impossible to work. In practice, it’s a judgment call made in doctors’ offices and courtrooms around the country. The health problems where there is most latitude for judgment — back pain, mental illness — are among the fastest growing causes of disability.
Research suggests that whether or not a disability is declared sometimes depends on the level of education completed by the “sufferer”. If the applicant has a college degree (meaning they could obtain a sit-down job) they might not qualify, in the doctor’s mind, as disabled, while a worker without college might, once again in the doctor’s judgment, qualify because the only kinds of jobs s/he could do would be physically challenging. While people might qualify for a job that would accommodate their disability if they were retrained, we have no such programs for disability applicants.
Here’s what a staff member said to a displaced worker in a retraining program in Aberdeen Washington:
“Scotty, I’m gonna be honest with you,” the guy told him. “There’s nobody gonna hire you … We’re just hiding you guys.” The staff member’s advice to Scott was blunt: “Just suck all the benefits you can out of the system until everything is gone, and then you’re on your own.”
Scott, who was 56 years old at the time, says it was the most real thing anyone had said to him in a while.
There used to be a lot of jobs that you could do with just a high school degree, and that paid enough to be considered middle class. I knew, of course, that those have been disappearing for decades. What surprised me was what has been happening to many of the people who lost those jobs: They’ve been going on disability.
Joffe-Walt’s conclusions on this topic:
“That’s a kind of ugly secret of the American labor market,” David Autor, an economist at MIT, told me. “Part of the reason our unemployment rates have been low, until recently, is that a lot of people who would have trouble finding jobs are on a different program.”
Part of the rise in the number of people on disability is simply driven by the fact that the workforce is getting older, and older people tend to have more health problems.
But disability has also become a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills. But it wasn’t supposed to serve this purpose; it’s not a retraining program designed to get people back onto their feet. Once people go onto disability, they almost never go back to work. Fewer than 1 percent of those who were on the federal program for disabled workers at the beginning of 2011 have returned to the workforce since then, one economist told me.
People who leave the workforce and go on disability qualify for Medicare, the government health care program that also covers the elderly. They also get disability payments from the government of about $13,000 a year. This isn’t great. But if your alternative is a minimum wage job that will pay you at most $15,000 a year, and probably does not include health insurance, disability may be a better option.
But, in most cases, going on disability means you will not work, you will not get a raise, you will not get whatever meaning people get from work. Going on disability means, assuming you rely only on those disability payments, you will be poor for the rest of your life. That’s the deal. And it’s a deal 14 million Americans have signed up for.
I did not know this but families in America receive extra funding for school children with disabilities who need special help in school. If they are honest they use this money to hire tutors or teacher aides to help their children with their schooling. But less than scrupulous parents with overtaxed family budgets find ways to incorporate some of these funds into the family budget. Once the family becomes dependent on these funds they are less likely to encourage success in school, as this will cause the funding to go away. This may be one of those cases where, by attempting to help people, we actually hurt their children and doom them to repeat the economic realities of their parents.
Here are the author’s conclusions on this subject:
I haven’t taken a survey or anything, but I’m guessing a large majority of Americans would be in favor of some form of government support for disabled children living in poverty. We would have a hard time agreeing on exactly how we want to offer support, but I think there are some basic things we’d all agree on.
Kids should be encouraged to go to school. Kids should want to do well in school. Parents should want their kids to do well in school. Kids should be confident their parents can provide for them regardless of how they do in school. Kids should become more and more independent as they grow older and hopefully be able to support themselves at around age 18.
The disability program stands in opposition to every one of these aims
In 1996, Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law. The number of people on welfare has declined ever since this time. However when you place the graph of welfare decline against the graph of disability increases you can see that we just may have moved people from one program into another.
When someone is on Welfare it costs the states money, once they are on disability the Federal government pays, so states actually pay private companies to go through their welfare rolls and find welfare recipients who might qualify for disability payments. These companies will even help those they find fill out the paperwork, they will help them collect documentation from doctors, and they will get them into the Social Security disability system.
If you want to read about the role of those disability lawyers advertising on our TV’s that’s in this article also.
The author concludes the article by saying:
Somewhere around 30 years ago, the economy started changing in some fundamental ways. There are now millions of Americans who do not have the skills or education to make it in this country.
Politicians pay lip service to this problem during election cycles, but American leaders have not sat down and come up with a comprehensive plan.
In the meantime, federal disability programs became our extremely expensive default plan. The two big disability programs, including health care for disabled workers, cost some $260 billion a year.
People at the Social Security Administration, which runs the federal disability programs, say we cannot afford this. The reserves in the disability insurance program are on track to run out in 2016, Steve Goss, the chief actuary at Social Security, told me.
Goss is confident that Congress will act to keep disability payments flowing, probably by taking money from the Social Security retirement fund. Of course, the retirement fund itself is on track to run out of money by 2035.
Goss and his colleagues have worked out a temporary fix under which the retirement and disability funds will both run out of money by 2033. He says he hopes the country will have come up with a better plan by then.
So it looks like my sister has a really valid point about this. How would we ever resolve this without unraveling the whole social safety net? Perhaps if we become a society that cannot provide a living wage to all of its citizens we will have to find a way to permanently support groups of people who do not work. There are, of course, people with disabilities so severe that they will never work, but as for supporting people who could work if they were given retraining for a job that did accommodate their disability, well that is not a good thing for the health of our society. And as for supporting “fakers” and “takers”, well that just makes us angry. Creativity needed here! What would be a good way to make sure that disability payments go to those who are actually disabled?