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Cascade Policy Institute: Buying Off Discontent: The Economic Wreckage of Disability Benefits in America

April 09, 2013

You lose the factory job you’ve had since high school due to cutbacks. When the unemployment runs out, the only jobs around for high school graduates are fast food joints and entry-level work – a huge pay cut. You discover you can make nearly as much money on disability. Your doctor diagnoses you with chronic back pain (all those years of standing on the factory floor), and you have joined the ranks of “not-unemployed-but-disabled.” The state in which you live is happy because you don’t need any more of their unemployment money, and the federal government is happy that you are not an unemployment statistic, gumming up jobless rates.

Or there’s this. You scrape by on your job, managing bare essentials, but it’s tough. There’s no health insurance. You find out from your kid’s school counselor that because he has ADHD and isn’t learning at grade level, he may be eligible for disability. Suddenly, you’ve got $700 more every month, so long as your kid stays below grade level. You have a perverse hope that your kid doesn’t catch up in school.

It’s a boardwalk shell game with the federal government as huckster: Is the money under the shell marked “unemployment,” “disability,” or “Social Security”? Is the disabled person the kid who can’t read, the factory worker whose unemployment ran out, or the truly disabled? The shells get moved, sleight of hand is performed, and the player’s money is quickly scooped up.

Disability has become America’s hidden welfare and unemployment program. People on disability don’t count in the ranks of the unemployed, and those unwilling to work but not eligible for welfare can often find a medical issue to keep checks rolling in. Perhaps most devastating, we’ve unwittingly created a system where people who could genuinely be helped by neighbors, churches, and charitable organizations are simply sent a check and told to go away.

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