Disabled America: where work is for suckers

Nearly one in 10 working age Americans now claims they’re too disabled to take a job

Where work is for suckers

Kevin Wolf/AP

In autumn 2010 I travelled through southern California to cover the gubernatorial race that brought Jerry “Governor Moonbeam” Brown back into power. I was struck by the same paradoxical phenomena that impress everybody who visits SoCal—the quiet, ominous, omnipresent army of Hispanic servants; the orgiastic water use in a naturally arid land; the curious physical plasticness of so many Californians. But there was one thing I didn’t anticipate. Having badgered dozens of people from Bakersfield to Balboa Park about their voting intentions, I was blown away by the sheer number who mentioned being “on disability.”

I could not learn to anticipate who would plop this into conversation; none of these people were visibly “disabled.” Apparent race or class didn’t give any clues, nor did demeanour. The effervescent L.A. blonde in bespoke sweatpants seemed just as likely to bring it up as the glowering, hoodied teen from Fresno.

Just looking at fiscal and demographic stats from California will cause a cold, invisible hand to clutch at one’s throat, but talking to an endless series of seemingly able-bodied people who casually disclaim any capacity for honest work is even more chilling. When I got home I found out it’s not just California’s problem. In the OECD’s 2010 “Going for Growth” report, the percentage of the working-age labour force (20 to 65 years) receiving any kind of disability benefit or worker’s compensation is estimated at around 5.1 per cent for Canada. For OECD nations as a whole, the figure is 6.7 per cent.

Northern European welfare states, amiright? But for the super-competitive U.S.A., land of the proudly threadbare social safety net, the number was 9.2 per cent.

The growth trend, which began in 1984 with a congressional backlash against Reaganite benefit cuts that opened the door to softer eligibility criteria, hasn’t slackened. In 2010 alone, 2.9 million eligible U.S. workers—a full 2 per cent of the pool of insured—applied for disability benefits from social security. The number of people receiving federal disability cheques, as of January 2013’s monthly report, was 8,830,026—all working-age individuals under 65—and that figure doesn’t include veterans injured on duty, persons on state disability programs, or beneficiaries of workers’ comp. The number of payees has tripled since 1990. It’s almost half of Canada’s total number of employed. The cost of federal disability insurance in the U.S. has been growing at an estimated 5.6 per cent a year, in real dollars, for two decades. (Population growth is under 1 per cent a year.)

There is a handful of economists working on the problem without ever gaining much traction in the popular press; the atmosphere of general crisis hasn’t made it any easier for them to be heard. Reading their papers and seeing them plead for the same reforms every few years is almost as depressing as contemplating Disabled America itself. Just as social security for the aged was devised at a time when workers could expect only a few years of life after clearing 65, social security for the disabled was conceived at a time when manual labour was the norm and “disability” denoted identifiable, incapacitating physical injury. No one envisioned a world in which clerical and “knowledge” work had taken over, but the number of people judged totally unable to work had skyrocketed, owing to vague musculoskeletal disorders, unverifiable chronic pain and an astronomical expansion in the definitions of mental illnesses.

In Canada and Europe, at least some attention has been given to updating income supports for the disabled so that the programs don’t claw back earnings from work too viciously. But in the United States, the system essentially drops everyone into either a “can work” or a “can’t work” bin. This discourages any return to self-sufficiency: once an American starts drawing disability they will move mountains to evade any job in the above-ground economy. Clinton-era welfare reforms made relative incentives worse, cutting off alternatives and creating a clear correlation between poor economic conditions and “disability.” Graphs of unemployment and new disability applications leap up and down in tandem like trained dolphins.

Disabled America helps explain, I think, how the 2012 presidential election got so ideological. It is easy for Canadians to sneer at Tea Party types who gripe about “makers” and “takers” without considering the alarming degree to which the U.S. actually has become a dole society, much like ’70s Britain—a place where work is, to some extent, for suckers. And the more American politicians avoid discussing the reality, the more the narrative of creeping socialism flourishes. The “Protestant work ethic” can’t survive long in the face of bad incentives. Nothing can.

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