It's My Back, Man!
Newcastle — I listened to Ira Glass’ podcast This American Life this morning. I know better, but I tuned in anyway, expecting to be irritated. I wasn’t disappointed. The subject was “Trends With Benefits.” I’m pretty hard-nosed about benefits, the government kind, and particularly sensitive at the moment, having just completed my taxes. I don’t appreciate turning over a mountain of money to be wasted, as it surely will be. The rant is on.
The benefit of choice under discussion is “disability.” There are towns in our fair country where one in four adults are sitting back in “disability” waiting for the bi-weekly government handout (on average about $500 with health care). Nationally, fourteen million Americans are on disability. The number has nearly doubled over the last 15 years. This despite all our social improvements, like the Americans With Disabilities Act which forbids discrimination for employment, or the prevalence of medical improvements (new knees, hips, ears etc.) that should be reducing the numbers of disabled. So how has this sorry situation come to pass? Chana Joffe-Walt spent six months investigating.
Chana went to Hale County, Alabama, a “one-in-four” location to interview. But before discussing her findings I should review conditions required to receive disability. The first important step is to find a compassionate physician, who is willing to attest that your hangnail precludes your finding gainful employment. The next step is to locate a scurrilous and unprincipled attorney (shouldn’t be difficult), who will adjudicate in your favor. Be patient. You will almost certainly be denied disability at first, but if you keep returning, again and again, like dandruff, you will eventually succeed. Why? The court is loaded in your favor. In “Plaintiff vs. Social Security” the defendant has no advocate. Only the plaintiff has counsel. And disability lawyering is a huge business today. Eventually even the noblest of judges gets tired.
How do the lawyers get paid? When someone receives disability classification, he is retro-paid to the day he first applied. Since the federal government foolishly stretches the application out with repeated denials, this can be a fair sum. The lawyer gets a cut, about 25 percent, paid directly by Social Security. That’s right, Social Security pays lawyers who successfully litigate against them; the situation is completely irrational.
Hale County is fortunate in having a general practitioner who OK’s anybody, so it’s on to the courtroom. Revealingly, however, the good doctor is not just concerned with medical matters but asks each applicant about his level of education. Apparently he takes into account the likelihood of employment. Realizing that there are no jobs for the uneducated (and precious few for the trained) he is biased to put these people on social security. He’s really just being a good guy.
But, you protest, this is why we have never-ending unemployment benefits and welfare. Funny thing about that. You’ll recall that in 1996 President Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.” He was remarkably successful; the rolls dropped dramatically. How so? More training, more motivation, more jobs? No. Welfare is run by the states, not the feds. Less money from the feds encouraged the states to cut back on welfare recipients. In order to do this they decided to examine those on welfare and move anyone even remotely qualified to the disability roll, which, a part of Social Security, is a federal program. Crafty, eh?
Since state governments are, much like the feds, incapable of accomplishing anything, they recruited private companies, eager to assist, to make the shifts. The companies are remunerated for each individual successfully moved, in the case of the largest consultant group, working in Missouri, $2300/head. This is cheap for the state, but not for the country, since disability recipients receive about four times what welfare recipients garner, and there is the health benefit to boot.
There’s more. We have seen an astonishing rise in the number of children on disability. How do they qualify? They’re not supposed to be working. Apparently someone has decided that if a child is a poor student he/she is disabled. Send the parents a check!
Did I say I was irritated by this podcast? What can we do? Obviously we should move disability funding to the states and do away with the welfare/disability scam. As for the kiddies, enough of the “no child left behind” nonsense. Every kid is performing as best he can or is willing to, and that’s good enough. There are no poor students. Corollary: stop wasting so much money on education. Education budgets, like welfare, like disability are out of control.
Sorry to be so negative, but we have a bad situation here. Is the job market improving as we (supposedly) emerge from recession? According to Chana, we are producing about 100,000 new jobs each month. Wonderful! Unfortunately, however, each month sees 250,000 more people seeking disability payments. Regarding unemployment statistics, the disabled are not counted, nor or those who’ve stopped looking for work. We’re not at eight percent. That number’s a complete fiction.
I suspect that at least 90 percent of the folks on disability would rather be pulling their weight. They can’t. There is no work. That’s very discouraging. About the only bright side is that with so many in the same unfortunate situation there is today less social opprobrium towards those not working. Not much solace there.