Unfit For Work…..The Startling Rise of Disability in America

I never really thought much about disability until I moved to Chico in 2011. As we met our neighbors, we found that next door, in a house originally purchased for more than $400,000.00 (we bought ours from the bank for a lot less than that, thankfully) lived two people, BOTH of whom were on disability.

Furthermore, as we talked, it turned out that they own property on the far side of the country, and have been going back there to arrange for a sale. They drive a really nice truck, and appear to be as normal as anyone else in the neighborhood. I was puzzled…just what *is* it that makes one “disabled”?

Am I disabled? I’ve got a 30 degree scoliosis in my lumbar spine, plus a stenosis that leaves me stooped and groaning from the pain in my hip and thigh for the first hour after I get out of bed, and periodically through the day. I can’t walk very far without numbness in my feet and intermittent hip pain that radiates down to my foot. Pushing a shopping cart, I’m fine – the small amount of “lean forward” required alleviates the pressure on my spinal cord. Needless to say, I don’t do much walking…although I’ve considered mugging one of the local homeless to get their cart!  Seriously, I’m seeing a doc and the next thing to try is the X-Stop Spacer.  More Relief!  Less Invasive!!

Anyhow, just recently, NPR (believe it or not) did a program on “The Startling Rise of Disability in America”.  It was an eye-opener, although most of the really sad cases they chronicle are nothing whatever like my neighbors here in Chico.  Not that my neighbors don’t have a sad story – they may very well be a tragic case…both of them.  But I know only the outward appearance, which seems very different.

“The federal government spends more money each year on cash payments for disabled former workers than it spends on food stamps and welfare combined….In Hale County, Alabama, nearly 1 in 4 working-age adults is on disability….There’s no diagnosis called disability. You don’t go to the doctor and the doctor says, “We’ve run the tests and it looks like you have disability.” It’s squishy enough that you can end up with one person with high blood pressure who is labeled disabled and another who is not….I have back pain. My editor has a herniated disc, and he works harder than anyone I know. There must be millions of people with asthma and diabetes who go to work every day. Who gets to decide whether, say, back pain makes someone disabled?…The health problems where there is most latitude for judgment — back pain, mental illness — are among the fastest growing causes of disability….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….There used to be a lot of jobs that you could do with just a high school degree, and that paid enough to be considered middle class. I knew, of course, that those have been disappearing for decades. What surprised me was what has been happening to many of the people who lost those jobs: They’ve been going on disability….But disability has also become a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills….Going on disability means, assuming you rely only on those disability payments, you will be poor for the rest of your life. That’s the deal. And it’s a deal 14 million Americans have signed up for….”

There’s plenty more….charts showing the growth of disability among children, showing the decline in welfare paralleled by the rise in disability, showing a steady increase in numbers on disability since 1990…and this:

“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.

“PCG is a private company that states pay to comb their welfare rolls and move as many people as possible onto disability. “What we’re offering is to work to identify those folks who have the highest likelihood of meeting disability criteria,” Pat Coakley, who runs PCG’s Social Security Advocacy Management team, told me….

“In the past few decades, an entire disability-industrial complex has emerged. It has just one goal: Push more people onto disability. And, sometimes, it seems like the government is outmatched. This is especially true in the legal system….

“People at the Social Security Administration, which runs the federal disability programs, say we cannot afford this. The reserves in the disability insurance program are on track to run out in 2016, Steve Goss, the chief actuary at Social Security, told me….”

For a worthwhile education, read the whole thing.  And kudos to NPR!!