Unfit for Work
Quote :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.
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 -- is, to a large extent, the story of the U.S. economy. It's the story not only of an aging workforce, but also of a hidden, increasingly expensive safety net.
In Hale County, there was one guy whose name was mentioned in almost every story about becoming disabled: Dr. Perry Timberlake. I began to wonder if he was the reason so many people in Hale County are on disability. Maybe he was running some sort of disability scam, referring tons of people into the program.
After sitting in the waiting room of his clinic several mornings in a row, I met Dr. Timberlake. It turns out, there is nothing shifty about him. He is a doctor in a very poor place where pretty much every person who comes into his office tells him they are in pain.
"We talk about the pain and what it's like," he says. "I always ask them, 'What grade did you finish?'"
What grade did you finish, of course, is not really a medical question. But Dr. Timberlake believes he needs this information in disability cases because people who have only a high school education aren't going to be able to get a sit-down job.
Dr. Timberlake is making a judgment call that if you have a particular back problem and a college degree, you're not disabled. Without the degree, you are.
"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."
When you are an adult applying for disability you have to prove you cannot function in a "work-like setting." When you are a kid, a disability can be anything that prevents you from progressing in school. Two-thirds of all kids on the program today have been diagnosed with mental or intellectual problems.
Let's imagine that happens. Jahleel starts doing better in school, overcomes some of his disabilities. He doesn't need the disability program anymore. That would seem to be great for everyone, except for one thing: It would threaten his family's livelihood. Jahleel's family primarily survives off the monthly $700 check they get for his disability.
Jahleel's mom wants him to do well in school. That is absolutely clear. But her livelihood depends on Jahleel struggling in school. This tension only increases as kids get older. One mother told me her teenage son wanted to work, but she didn't want him to get a job because if he did, the family would lose its disability check.
A person on welfare costs a state money. That same resident on disability doesn't cost the state a cent, because the federal government covers the entire bill for people on disability. So states can save money by shifting people from welfare to disability. And the Public Consulting Group is glad to help.
Some key points:
- Disability recipients aren't counted in unemployment numbers. Should they be?
- Disability recipients are paid by the Federal government, and since the 90s welfare reform, states are responsible for a lot of those costs. So there exists an incentive for states to get people off of welfare and on to disability. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
- As a follow-on to the previous point, this situation has also created an industry of lawyers and firms that exist for no other reason than to encourage people to get onto disability (i.e. not to work). If this is a bad thing, how do we correct this trajectory?
Since I shouldn't start a thread with such an open-ended discussion point, I'll try and frame the discussion around this question: What should we do about this seemingly inherent problem of disability v. welfare? Is this even a problem?
As should be the rule for every discussion here, please try and refrain from posting things like "this is so-and-so's fault" or things of purely partisan nature. I'm interested in hearing the various opinions of people here about what we do about it (if one agrees that it's a problem, of course.)