A reporter for NPR's “This American Life”
took a look at why some pockets of the country have up to a fourth of their residents taking disability payments.
About $260 billion a year is spent on disability payments – eight times more than on welfare. Disability has, in fact, become the default welfare program for some.
Chana Joffe-Walt first noted the trend in Hale County, Alabama. She talked to residents, and found it can cause resentment among townspeople.
One judge in Hale County noted that many of the people who come through his courtroom say they are on disability despite looking “robust.” He asked one man what his disability was, and was told “I have high blood pressure.”
“So do I,” the judge responded. “What else?”
“I have diabetes.”
“So do I. What else?”
Joffe-Walt found that a top theory in Hale County was that many of those on disability are fakers.
“Freeloaders, fakers, people who are faking disability was always the No. 1 theory,” she said.
But residents had other theories, too: Obesity from poor food choices in the low-income area. A lifestyle lived to the fullest (i.e. too much drinking and smoking throughout their lives.)
One contributing factor is that baby boomers are aging, and older people have more disabilities. While that makes sense, it didn’t completely explain why payments have doubled in the past 15 years.
The upward trend actually began even further back. When the economy began changing 30 years ago, workers with low skills saw their jobs shipped to other countries. If they suffered any condition that would not allow them to work while standing or by doing heavy physical labor, they were deemed “disabled.” They had no skills for a “sit-down” job – or, in the case of Hale County – there weren’t any.
One woman, when asked what kind of job she would dream of doing that would accommodate her disability struggled, then came up with being the woman who sits at the Social Security office, weeding out the fakers looking to sign up.
It wasn’t because she wanted to weed people out of the system, Joffe-Walt said, but because it was the only job she’d ever seen where someone actually sits down all day.
People who have, at best, a high school education find it impossible to find jobs they can do if they have a sore back or nerve damage.
And the system is encouraged. Joffe-Walt reconnected with mill workers she’d first reported on four years ago when their factory closed. Several, unable to find other employment, ended up on disability.
Besides the lawyers who make millions representing disability applicants, some companies are paid to get people off welfare and onto disability. It’s a win for the state, because it doesn’t have to pay anymore (Disability payments are federal.) and the client makes as much as four times more income.
The problem is, once someone signs up for disability there are only two ways off: getting off it and onto Social Security at age 65 or 66 – and death. There are no programs to help someone on the program retrain or get an education.
There will be no interacting with co-workers, no chance at promotion for the rest of your life, Joffe-Walt notes.
“You will be poor for the rest of your life.”
Unemployment applications are reported regularly, but disability applications? Not at all.
And while there are 150,000 jobs created per month in the U.S., 250,000 people go on disability.
If the problem could be addressed, Joffe-Walt said, a large amount of money spent on the program could go elsewhere: to increase welfare and food stamp payments, to handing out cash to every out-of-work American. Or even … to lowering taxes.
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