Jonah Goldberg

The government in Britain recently did something interesting.

It asked everyone receiving an "incapacity benefit" -- a disability program slowly being phased out under new reforms -- to submit to a medical test to confirm they were too disabled to work. A third of recipients (878,000 people) didn't even bother and dropped out of the program rather than be examined. Of those tested, more than half (55 percent) were found fit for work, and a quarter were found fit for some work.

But that's Britain, where there's a long tradition of gaming the dole. Americans would never think of taking advantage of the taxpayers or misleading the government. Well, except for the couple dozen people who have pleaded guilty to scamming the Long Island Rail Road's federal disability system in a $1 billion fraud scheme. A billion bucks would pay for a lot of White House tours.

Though hardly isolated, the LIRR scandal is an obvious black-and-white case of criminality. The real problem resides in a grayer area.

In 1960, when vastly more Americans were involved in physical labor of some kind, 0.65 percent of workforce participants between the ages of 18 and 64 were receiving Social Security disability insurance payments. Fifty years later, in a much healthier America, that number has grown nearly nine-fold to 5.6 percent.

In 1960, 134 Americans were working for every officially recognized disabled worker. Five decades later that ratio fell to roughly 16 to 1.

Some defenders of the status quo say these numbers can be explained by the entry of women into the U.S. workforce, the aging of baby boomers and the short-term spike in need that came with the recession.

No doubt those are significant factors. But not nearly so significant as to explain why the number of people on disability has been doubling every 15 years (while the average age of recipients has gone down) or why such a huge proportion of claim injuries can't be corroborated by a doctor.

Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute and the Harvard School of Public Health notes in his recent book "A Nation of Takers: America's Entitlement Epidemic" that 29 percent of the 8.6 million Americans who received Social Security disability benefits at the end of 2011 cited injuries involving the "musculoskeletal system and the connective tissue." Fifteen percent claimed "mood disorders."

It's almost impossible, Eberstadt writes, "for a medical professional to disprove a patient's claim that he or she is suffering from sad feelings or back pain." And that's assuming a doctor wants to disprove the claim.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
TOWNHALL DAILY: Be the first to read Jonah Goldberg's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com daily lineup delivered each morning to your inbox.