CEPR - Center for Economic and Policy Research


En Español

Em Português

Other Languages

Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Charles Lane Finds it Paradoxical that the Government Provides Assistance to Workers Whose Disabilities Keep Them From Working

Charles Lane Finds it Paradoxical that the Government Provides Assistance to Workers Whose Disabilities Keep Them From Working

Tuesday, 31 July 2012 05:15

I'm serious. The Washington Post columnist notes the Americans With Disability Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating against workers because they have a disability, then complains about the paradox that the Social Security disability program gives money to people with disabilities who can't work. I don't really see the paradox in trying to make it easier for people with disabilities to find jobs while still supporting those whose disabilities don't allow them to work, but maybe that's why I don't write for the WAPO.

Anyhow, Lane goes on to note that the disability payments have doubled as a share of GDP over the last three decades, then asks, "what's going on?" He tells readers:

"There’s no evidence that workers in general are substantially less healthy than they used to be."

Umm, actually that is not true. The workforce has aged substantially in the last three decades. In the 1980, the huge baby boom cohort was in their 20s and early 30s, today they are in their 50s and 60s. Workers in their 50s and 60s are far more likely to have disabilities that keep them from working than workers in their 20s and 30s. Even Lane himself notes the aging of the workforce later in the piece.

There is also the paradox (there's that word again) that improvements in health care can increase disability rates. Suppose a worker has a disease like AIDS or cancer. Improvements in treatment can keep this worker alive much longer, but may not allow them to go back to work.

There are also other factors that would increase disability rolls that have nothing to do with more freeloaders, most importantly the increase in the percentage of women who have worked long enough to be eligible for disability. According to the Congressional Budget Office the percentage of the working age population eligible for disability increased from 62 percent in 1970 to 75 percent in 2009.

As this report also notes, disability rolls tend to increase in economic downturns. This is the point that seems to concern Lane, that many workers turn to disability when their unemployment benefits run out. 

While Lane sees something pernicious in this story, with the disabled pocketing checks that average a bit more than $1,100 a month at the expense of the rest of us (and also getting Medicare after two years), there is another way to view this picture. Many people with various types of physical and psychological problems work.

It is likely the case that these disabilities do reduce their productivity on the job. When employers are looking to cut back their work force, they may be more likely to lay off a worker whose bad back makes them slower than other workers or a person with fits of depression that prevent them from functioning for periods of time. Much of the answer in this story would seem to be that if we keep the economy operating at high levels of employment there will be job opportunities for these workers. That would bring us back to our friend stimulus, but Lane and the Washington Post don't like to talk about such things. (It's all so complicated, we just can't know if it works.)

Anyhow, we certainly can do better in making it easier for workers to leave disability and get back in the workforce. There also are freeloaders on the program who should be working. But all the evidence suggests that the bulk of the rise in disability is due to changes in the health of the workforce and the economy, not a sudden proliferation of freeloaders.


[Addendum: Charles Lane didn't address this issue, but since it has come up in comments and elsewhere, disability payments actually increased more rapidly under President Bush (the second) than under President Obama. This means that if we want to point fingers at a president pandering to freeloaders, our target should be the last occupant of the White House, not the current one.]

Comments (16)Add Comment
The many faces of disability
written by Robert Salzberg, July 31, 2012 6:17
Noted professor, author and physicist Stephen Hawking has extreme physical disabilities from ALS but has managed to continue to work for decades and even now works even though he just retired from teaching. I know two local surgeons that have retired because of mild loss of fine motor control in one hand that effectively ended their ability to continue being surgeons. Both could continue to work as physicians but choose not to. They both had private disability insurance and would have never retired on the relative pittance they would qualify for from the Social Security disability program.

I know someone else that had a second spinal fusion yet still returned to work as a stock person in a big box retail chain because she couldn't afford to live on her potential disability payment, partially because she is the primary caregiver for her 5 year old granddaughter.

As a physical therapist, I've seen many clients that have disabilities that would allow them to collect disability but choose not to.

But can we really blame a person who has a legitimate disability and can't find work for turning to disability payments to survive?

Mostly, we need stimulus for more potential jobs and much better retraining programs for people with disabilities who want to continue working.
More Rights to Work Don't Contradict More Rights Not to Work , Low-rated comment [Show]
Cutting off our nose to spite our face
written by Joel David Palmer, July 31, 2012 6:30
We tie ourselves in knots developing these strange moral equations to demonstrate why it's ok to punish with impoverishment those we think don't deserve an income. And we do it almost exclusively to rationalize a desire to not pay taxes. If we were to shift our perspective to account for modern monetary operations, we would see that federal taxes don't actually "pay" for anything, but simply "unprint" money. The federal government, as the issuer of a sovereign currency, can spend new dollars into existence, as many as we need to "clear the markets" of unsold goods and services, without taxes or borrowing (why would we borrow something we can make in unlimited amounts?). From this perspective, at times of economic downturn, it makes sense to suggest both that taxes are too high and spending is too low.

But even from the perspective of the dominant paradigm, when we deny even a very modest income to our poor, disabled, unemployed, and elderly fellow citizens on the grounds that they are undeserving or unproductive, we harm everyone else who is deserving and productive. The only thing a person receiving a modest disability transfer payment can do with the money is spend it in the private sector on goods and services produced and sold by productive and therefore, presumably, deserving fellow citizens.

Businesses don't care where their customers get their money or the circumstances of their lives, only that they spend their money. If we are concerned about "costs to society" of supporting those who are disabled, we should understand that the costs will be much greater if those persons end up on the street, receiving their health care at emergency rooms, turning to crime, becoming disaffected and utterly unproductive, etc.

I should think that newspaper columnists would be very reluctant to face an examination of their own "productive" value to society, and instead stress the importance of public policies firmly grounded in sympathy and compassion for the less fortunate.
written by Chuck Krumroy, July 31, 2012 6:52
Thanks for the paradoxical point about improvements in health care increasing the disability rolls. My family and friends from the early days of the AIDS epidemic aren't on disability -- they're dead. I, on the other hand, somehow lived long enough for new meds to control the disease; but I'm not able to work full-time. So in Massachusetts I qualify for partial disability support (helps pay my private health insurance premiums). Keeping me at least partially in the labor force and able to afford private insurance is a boon for me and a bargain for Massachusetts.
Shorter Charles Lane
written by Matt, July 31, 2012 7:29
Shorter Charles Lane: "I don't understand why disabled people can't just keep working. I mean, I can do my job despite being totally ignorant of reality."
Misleading Quote
written by Stuart Levine, July 31, 2012 9:24
Dean--I think that the quote "the percentage of the working age population eligible for disability increased from 62 percent in 1970 to 75 percent in 2009" is somewhat misleading. When I initially read it, I thought that you were saying that the percentage of the workforce who were entitled to disability benefits were 62% and 75%, respectively. That, of course, didn't make any sense. What the report says, and I think that you should clarify, is that in 1970 62% of the workforce was covered by Social Security Disability Insurance, thus able to make a claim if they became disabled, but that this percentage grew to 75% by 2009. Thus, because the pool of individuals who were covered by the insurance has increased over time, there was a rise in the number of claims both made and allowed.
Try living on 1000$ a month
written by BCW, July 31, 2012 10:13
Our system systematically punishes those with severe disability. A person too sick to work reliably has a poor or no work record and cannot find jobs even when able to try to work. If they do find a job, disability payments are reduced or eliminated; if the person can't hold onto the job they end up with nothing. Charity work, which would at least provide part time social and work contact to try to build work skills, is specifically limited to jobs the charity wouldn't bother to hire someone to do - The reasoning is that volunteer jobs shouldn't replace paid positions.

I have a friend I take food to when he is too sick to get out of the house. The risk there is that if he isn't spending down his disability account and it exceeds the vast sum of 2000$, the government will dock all of his payments for the period. Just try to hold a (shared) apartment and buy food and have nothing in the bank all on 1000$ a month.
More disabled? It's as if we've been in a big war or something....
written by Daulnay, July 31, 2012 11:44
Many more veterans have returned from the foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq severely disabled, a much larger percentage than in past wars. This comes partly from lower fatality rates -- our military saves the lives of severely wounded people who would have died in past wars. Part of it is the nature of these conflicts -- insurgencies with IEDs and things that mangle more than bullets do.
[url= http://www.newsday.com/news/na...-1.3747078
written by Eric377, July 31, 2012 11:56
Thousands of people who were working within the last 3 years without a disability recognized under ADA, then were laidoff and collected unemployment without disability are showing up at Social Security offices to sign up for disability payments. There are TV advertisements for expert help in getting this done. Almost all of them are desperate for income, and so in a decent society they are going to get income support. Call it what you will, few are headed to Aruba on their disability checks. So Lane probably has a point about the process, but it an unimportant point versus leaving the big majority of such folks to lead very harsh lives. A more interesting disability question (to me)could probably be raised about unusual data concerning public safety trades. Take police officers. You might think that disability retirements would be pretty much a normal distribution for the group of collective bargaining units. But there are true and extreme outliers in this data.
The cost of health care is to blame.
written by Norm Deplume, July 31, 2012 12:43
I know people with serious mental disorders who are being forced into a lifetime of poverty and government dependence simply because the price of the medications that they need to function is beyond what they might earn, if they could find anyone to hire them.
These people could be contributing members of society, but they are terrified of losing their drug benefits if they earn any money at all. It is a lousy existence, but the alternatives-institutionalization or homelessness, are far worse. They literally cannot go a day without their medications.
I believe this is a large hidden problem that is growing worse every day that we continue with our insane health care "system". What kind of future is there for the children of these people, who are also medicated and growing up within this system?
Single payer is the obvious answer.
After we get serious about corporate subsidies we can talk about disability claims
written by Patrick Pine, July 31, 2012 2:17
The amounts we pump into farm subsidies and into building ineffective military products dwarf the likely freeloading on disability payments (most folks receiving disability payments are not in that position by choice) -so I will seriously consider a columnist who addresses those issues first - or even at all - but if not, just wasting time...
Liberalization of the DI screening process
written by Scott Supak, July 31, 2012 2:54
I'm surprised you missed this, Dean.

The Growth in the Social Security Disability Insurance Rolls


The most important factor is the liberalization of the DI screening process that occurred due to a 1984 law. This law directed the Social Security Administration to place more weight on ap-plicants' reported pain and discomfort, relax its screening of mental illness, consider applicants with multiple non-severe ailments, and give more credence to medical evidence provided by the applicant's doctor.

These changes had the effect of both increasing the number of new DI awards and shifting their composition towards claimants with low-mortality disorders. For example, the share of awards for a primary impairment of mental illness rose from 16 percent in 1983 to 25 percent in 2003, while the share for a primary impairment of musculoskeletal disorders (primarily back pain) rose from 13 per-cent in 1983 to 26 percent in 2003.

I love to whip this out on Republicans who claim Obama's to blame for the recent rise. In fact, Reagan had the most to do with it, and the increase has been going on since the 80's.
being disabled is more complicated than that
written by Alex Bollinger, August 01, 2012 1:52
As someone who's recently (and, hopefully, temporarily) handicapped, I can attest to how complicated the system is. I had a desk job until this spring (research assistant), and developed osteonecrosis (which reduces mobility) in February. My contract ended and finding another similar position will probably be impossible, so I'm going back to school in the fall and thought I'd work this summer in some low-wage job.

But guess what? Low-wage work is usually physical! I used to tend bar, but that's out of the question when you're in crutches. I used to do child care as well, but how can I run after kids if it takes me upwards of 30 seconds just to stand up? I thought fast food or retail, but I can't stand for more than 5 minutes at a time. And I wasn't able to find another job in a lab for such a short term.

So I'm pretty much just waiting until school starts and, yes, I'm collecting a small disability check in the mean time. Otherwise I'd starve.

The worst part is that Lane will probably say that Baker is being uncivil, when Lane just called me a moocher and a parasite because I had the bad sense to develop a rare bone disease I had never heard of before. But clearly insulting the millions like me isn't as big a sin as saying that a pretty person like Lane is stupid, and probably fairly evil.
The ACA could help here.
written by Laika, August 01, 2012 3:02
Has anybody pointed this out? A disability is a pre-existing condition, and historically can prevent someone from obtaining private health insurance. People with mobility disabilities, such as paraplegia, and people with psychiatric disorders can have expensive medical needs. Why risk employment if employment means you can't afford needed medical treatment?

Look, it comes down to this: People with work-limiting disabilities will end up dirt poor, unless they have considerable personal or family wealth. Like someone else said, above, most of us aren't sailing off to Aruba.
Check the case law for plaintiff wins under the ADA
written by ljm, August 01, 2012 4:25
Employers know they can get away without providing accommodations to workers who have disabilities. The courts have bent over backwards in employment discrimination cases of every stripe to be sure that the defendant wins and the plaintiff loses. Federal judges for the most part hate civil rights law.

That said, on the subject of women taking disability, I had to do that after I'd worked 30 years and was in 2 auto accidents that left me with chronic pain. Employers don't want employees who have to come to work on pain medication, I discovered. I had to leave my job. When I went through the process and final adjudication, the expert reported that the work I had been doing based on the Dictionary of Occupational Titles standards said I had been doing a heavy strength job (health care) for nearly all of the 30 years. I am a small woman. It's easy for a man with a desk job to write a column complaining about the world of disability when he hasn't had to struggle to physically do a job or go through the humiliating process to get SSDI.

written by Jon Greenbaum, August 06, 2012 7:28
I work as an organizer in distressed neighborhoods where the majority of people are living at around 125% of the poverty line. I encounter many people who are on disability. Some folks have been really chewed up by manual labor and live in constant pain. Other SSD and SSI recipients have spent their lives marginally employed and abused by the economy and have turned to disability as an off ramp to the constant degradations of low wage work. They have made a conscious calculation to trade the possibility of work that might deliver $18,000 a year for disability that guarantees less than $15,000 year after year. I can't really argue with their choices. What is astonishing is to hear the MSM blowhards tee off and spew without spending a minute inside the lived reality of these citizens.

Write comment

(Only one link allowed per comment)

This content has been locked. You can no longer post any comments.


Support this blog, donate
Combined Federal Campaign #79613

About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.