The new welfare?
As I note in an editorial today, the Social Security Disability Insurance program has been growing sharply in recent years, especially during the recession. It’s more nuanced an issue than our hyper-partisan politics can handle. The best overview I’ve seen is this NPR piece.
Most of the factors behind the growth in SSDI are easy enough to understand. The workforce is aging, so you have more legitimate physical conditions that make it hard for people to work. Middle aged masons who can’t lift rocks any more because their backs are shot. Middle aged cashiers who can’t stand all day at work. Many of those don’t have the education or skills or opportunities for desk jobs. They also don’t have the ability to pull up stakes and move to where the jobs may be. Records show SSDI claims typically rise with the unemployment rate, for obvious reasons: People lose jobs, can’t find jobs, and look for a program. When jobs become more plentiful, some SSDI recipients find jobs they can handle.
Two other factors in the increased SSDI use I hadn’t heard of until recently:
1. The “disability industrial complex”: Lawyers advertising on daytime TV, offering to handle appeals for those denied SSDI benefits. The lawyers have a high success rate (partly because SS doesn’t have an advocate in the hearings) and take a 25 percent cut of the retroactive payments for cases they win.
2. Welfare reform incentivizes states to trim their welfare rolls, and getting a welfare recipient onto SSDI saves the state as much money as getting him or her a job. Enterprising consulting companies have sold their services to states, contracting with them to sift through their welfare rolls and get those folks on SSDI, collecting a bounty for each.
There’s compassion in this program – it’s a safety net some people desperately need – but tragedy as well, because there’s nobody trying to match these people with work they could do despite their disability. It deserves some serious discussion.