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The Hidden Welfare Program for the Low-Skilled and Uneducated

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There are 14 million Americans who are out of work yet don’t show up in the monthly unemployment statistics. The federal government spends more money each year on cash payments for this group than it spends on food stamps and welfare combined. They are part of the hidden social safety net. They are the disabled former workers.

disability-approvedNPR’s Planet Money has produced a fascinating report on the growth of federal disability programs and what disability means for American workers. Here are some of the highlights.

Whether you’re disabled often depends on your education level and what types of work you can do:

“We talk about the pain and what it’s like,” he says. “I always ask them, ‘What grade did you finish?'”

What grade did you finish, of course, is not really a medical question. But Dr. Timberlake believes he needs this information in disability cases because people who have only a high school education aren’t going to be able to get a sit-down job.

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.

Determining who is disabled isn’t a clear cut process:

As far as the federal government is concerned, you’re disabled if you have a medical condition that makes it impossible to work. In practice, it’s a judgment call made in doctors’ offices and courtrooms around the country. The health problems where there is most latitude for judgment — back pain, mental illness — are among the fastest growing causes of disability.

Disability has become a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills:

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.

[. . .]

If there’d been a mill for Scott to go back to work in, he says, he’d have done that too. But there wasn’t a mill, so he went on disability. It wasn’t just Scott. I talked to a bunch of mill guys who took this path — one who shattered the bones in his ankle and leg, one with diabetes, another with a heart attack. When the mill shut down, they all went on disability.

Even kids can get disability and, as with the adults, their families don’t want to stop getting the check from the government:

Let’s imagine that happens. Jahleel starts doing better in school, overcomes some of his disabilities. He doesn’t need the disability program anymore. That would seem to be great for everyone, except for one thing: It would threaten his family’s livelihood. Jahleel’s family primarily survives off the monthly $700 check they get for his disability.

Jahleel’s mom wants him to do well in school. That is absolutely clear. But her livelihood depends on Jahleel struggling in school. This tension only increases as kids get older. One mother told me her teenage son wanted to work, but she didn’t want him to get a job because if he did, the family would lose its disability check.

The Clinton-era welfare reforms may have shifted people from welfare to disability:

Part of Clinton’s welfare reform plan pushed states to get people on welfare into jobs, partly by making states pay a much larger share of welfare costs. The incentive seemed to work; the welfare rolls shrank. But not everyone who left welfare went to work.

States pay consultants to help them find people to shift from welfare to disability:

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.

Disability programs are very expensive:

. . . federal disability programs became our extremely expensive default plan. The two big disability programs, including health care for disabled workers, cost some $260 billion a year.

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.

You’ll want to read the rest of NPR’s riveting—and depressing—report.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • IntrusiveGovernment

    It should be pointed out that if one commits cold-blooded murder, one of the most serious crimes there is, s/he is considered innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of civil law. Even after conviction, s/he is fed and otherwise provided for at taxpayer expense for the rest of his/her life if sentenced to life in prison. Even if sentenced to death, s/he is similarly provided for up until the execution is carried out, which can often be years later. In either case, the length of time that one is provided for at taxpayer expense is often much longer than the five-year lifetime time limit on eligibility for receiving welfare that we now have.

    It is time to insist that innocent until proven guilty also apply to ALL the economically vulnerable. This ought to be the case anytime but especially during an economic downturn. Even if some such victims do deserve some blame, the presumption ought to be on the side of assuming that they do not deserve blame. In other words, the burden of proof ought to be on the side of showing that the victim is to blame, if that is the case. Similarly, on the question of the deserving versus the undeserving poor, the presumption ought to be on the side of being DESERVING in case of doubt. In other words, the burden of proof ought to be on the side of showing that a poor person is undeserving, if that is the case.

    Also, especially during an economic downturn, the presumption ought to be that unemployment is not the fault of the individual. In other words, the burden of proof ought to be on the side of showing that unemployment is the fault of the individual, if that is the case. It is time to DEMAND a TOTAL STOP to the presumption that, even in a recession, unemployment is still considered to be the fault of the individual. There is ABSOLUTELY NO EXCUSE for the refusal of the Republican Party to give the benefit of the doubt to the poor and unemployed during the latest economic downturn.

    Even if individual fault can be proven in the cases above, the faults cannot possibly be serious enough to warrant capital punishment. Practically speaking, the deliberate denial of the basic necessities of life to someone, such as denying food to those who refuse to work, is a form of capital punishment. Laziness cannot possibly be serious enough to warrant capital punishment.

    In an economy where there are not enough jobs to go around, some minimum income MUST be provided even to those who do not work. It is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE to have any time limits whatsoever on the provision of such income. Such time limits violate the presumption of innocent until proven guilty, and unjustly impose the practical equivalent of capital punishment for actions that cannot possibly be that serious. Also, as long as we are spending tax dollars on life sentences for convicted murderers, who are just about the least deserving people there are, taxpayer cost is not a valid excuse for failing to provide such a minimum income. It is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE to deny anyone else rights that even convicted murderers have, no matter what their behavior, and no matter what the taxpayer cost.

    A good starting point for providing such a minimum income would be to convert the standard deduction and dependency exemption from tax deductions into 100% REFUNDABLE tax credits. In addition, the child tax credit ought to be 100% refundable. That way, even those who earn too little to owe income tax, including those with no income at all, would get the full benefit of those tax breaks. Most of the incentive problems of welfare would appear to be the result of means testing. Since the benefits of 100% refundable tax credits would not be means tested, the rules for claiming them would be the same for both the poor and the middle class, the incentive problems of means testing ought to be avoided, or at least significantly reduced.


      I think the days of libertarian-economics conservatism are numbered. More and more traditional conservatives are waking up, their asking libertarian conservative, how shall we live? Talking about numbers and stats are great but having results is the matter at hand, if people aren’t getting by how do you expect them to care about issues. One stat that should be worrying is the gap between the rich and the poor.

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