Disability: None Dare Call It Welfare

Spend a morning at any District Court criminal calendar and you’ll hear the following refrain so often you’ll think you’re on the set of a horrible Groundhog Day sequel:

Judge: “Are you currently employed?”

Defendant: “I’m on disability, your honor.”

Don’t pinch yourself – you are stuck with the same uninspired comic-book reboots at the box office again and again and again and again and again. But the unbearable waking nightmare that modern cinema has become is not the topic of this post.

The “disability” the defendants are “on” is a government program called Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). If some of them look like they could bench press you above their heads, it’s because they probably could.

Spoiler Alert: They aren’t actually disabled, at least not in any physical or factual sense of the term. But they are receiving free medical care and a monthly annuity from the federal government, and they will continue to do so on the sole condition that they don’t find gainful employment (I believe this is what many economists call a “misalignment of incentives,” to say the least).

Of course not every individual on SSDI is supplementing a criminal lifestyle or working his or her way through the justice system. Many are otherwise normal (but down on their luck) law-abiding citizens who live out their mundane lives with daytime television, running everyday errands, walking the streets aimlessly, or going to see abysmal superhero movie sequels at preferred daytime cinema rates.

From the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) disability website:

“‘Disability’ under Social Security is based on your inability to work. We consider you disabled under Social Security rules if: 1) You cannot do work that you did before; 2)We decide that you cannot adjust to other work because of your medical condition(s); and 3) Your disability has lasted or is expected to last for at least one year or to result in death.”

On its surface, SSDI seems like the quintessential safety net: citizens pay in over their working lives, and if unlucky enough to suffer some catastrophic physical handicap, society helps them make ends meet. So why has SSDI enrollment exploded to over 11 million people over the past decade – over 5% of eligible, working-age Americans – more than doubling in both real and percentage terms since 1999? When added to the 8 to 9 million people on SSDI’s kissing cousin, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), for low-income disabled individuals, that’s approximately 20 million adults and counting drawing disability (not counting federal, state, and military disability pensions).

Economists  David Autor and Mark Duggan believe the problem started with the Social Security Disability Benefits Reform Act of 1984, which significantly expanded the eligibility criteria of the program. Thumbing through the SSA’s qualifying list, we find such common, subjective, or impossible-to-verify conditions as joint pain, back pain, anxiety, and depression, which as of 2009, make up more than half of all SSDI claims:

“Pain cases and mental cases are extremely difficult because – and even more so with mental cases – there’s no objective medical evidence,” said Randall Frye, a Social Security administrative law judge in Charlotte, N.C. “It’s all subjective.” (Source)

The certifying doctor is the applicant’s personal doctor, and if the first doctor doesn’t agree, the patient can go on a doctor shopping spree until he finds one that does. To its credit, the SSA rejects somewhere between 60-70% of first-time applications, but attorney-driven appeals of rejections reverse the trend, and by the end of the process, roughly 70% are successful. Unlike criminal and civil trials, there is no government advocate present in such hearings to represent the taxpayer’s interests.

The kicker is SSDI is not counted in the national unemployment rate (a politician’s wet dream) and this is one reason why the labor participation rate is the lowest it’s been since the mid-70’s. In this manner, SSDI sweeps political undesirables who would otherwise be unemployed or on other forms of welfare under the rug, paying them what amounts to a monthly bribe to stay out of the most widely reported economic health indicators.

The unemployment rate is looking better already!

A Rose by Any Other Name?

Progressives or other utilitarians might claim it matters little whether we call the redistribution “welfare,” “disability,” or any other arbitrary label, because it’s all just so much hush money to keep the lower classes fat, happy, and not murdering the 1% in their goose-feathered comforters at night. But this rationale misses the critical distinctions between SSDI and traditional welfare, which are the dishonesty and finality inherent in the program.

Only the willfully blind could deny, against the weight of the evidence, that there is little medically wrong with many of the “disabled” collecting SSDI. They enroll not because they physically cannot work (let’s face it – if you can type, you can work), but because the pay would be low or the job unpleasant. They may spin their tales for understandable reasons – desperation, practicality, or economic hardship – but at the end of the day, they are committing a moral fraud on their society. They know this, and it eats at their dignity every day, making them ever-more fearful, ashamed, and resentful. Those who know these individuals may also recognize the deceit, leading to lower public trust in each other and in public institutions, which arrives with a whole host of related social and political problems. Other means of dealing with the “unemployable” segments of the population – public employment, jobs programs, or military service – at least give the individuals dignity, societal buy-in, and some useful skills and experience for their resumes.

Furthermore, once someone is on SSDI, it is FOREVER, unlike the failed dependency programs of yesteryear that were “fixed” by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which ushered in the more limited Temporary Assistance for Needy Familie (TANF) program. SSDI’s $1000-2000 a month may seem paltry at first, but with payroll taxes and healthcare contributions taken out of the equation, it’s a respectable sum of money on which to live, and getting a check for no obligations whatsoever beats the heck out of low-skill labor. A program that can only ratchet up and never down is destined to blow up, especially during a recession, and indeed SSDI is slated to become insolvent in less than three years time.

There are all manner of reasonable reforms that should have been enacted years ago: partial disability, incentives to return to work, independent doctor certification, and so on. But before these reforms have any chance of enactment, SSDI must be recognized as the kabuki theater it is, masking a new, nefarious, and unsustainable form of welfare.

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