A couple of weeks ago I read, with great interest, what seemed like a very comprehensive piece by NPR’s Chana Joffe-Walt that was critical of the way people are using (or abusing, as the case may be) disability benefits in this country. It was both shocking and enraging to me on first glance, mainly because it highlighted how doctors are so quick to deem someone eligible for disability benefits and Medicare, even when they’re affected by something seemingly minor, like a bad back. It also profiled a number of people who seemed pretty complacent about staying on disability indefinitely, people we might associate with Reagan’s “welfare queens.” And to top it all off, Joffe-Walt condemns the federal government for playing the chump in giving states the incentive to push disadvantaged people into the disability pool and off their welfare rolls.
But it’s hard for readers like me, who know very little about the issue, not to be taken in by what in hindsight seems like an unfair generalization:
Disability has 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.
I posted a link to the piece on Facebook, which my mother, the bleeding-heart liberal, saw. She immediately fired off a response, a link to a Baseline Scenario piece by James Kwak.
Kwak concludes that “the [NPR] story as a whole suffers from… facile extrapolation from the individual story to national policy.” Ouch! Moreover, he insists,
[Joffe-Walt] overlooks the big story. Federal welfare reform set lifetime benefit limits, meaning that, after a few years, you get completely cut off. After some welfare recipients got jobs, this was the factor that ensured that welfare rolls would go down. Many people who couldn’t work and got welfare now can’t work and get disability. That’s a good thing—especially if the alternative is pushing them onto the streets.
Just something to think about. Many thanks to my mom for helping me think a bit more critically about this issue (and, of course, for all the other great stuff she does for me).
Further sort-of-related reading: Today’s excellent Daily Beast piece by Stuart Stevens, “Poverty Plagues Obama’s America, Press Based in Booming Cities Shrugs.” I’ll just give you a taste:
[Obama] wakes up in the morning eager to focus on jobs the same way George W. Bush woke up eager to focus on health care.