The next revolution in work

Rich Lowry
Posted: Jan 03, 2005 12:00 AM

   Long ago we decided as a society that the mentally retarded are people too. But our public policy doesn't yet fully reflect the fact that, as people, they have the same aspirations as the rest of us -- namely, to work, to save, to have as much control as is possible over their own lives.

    In a new report, The President's Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities issues a call to change federal programs to accommodate this reality. ("Intellectual disabilities" is the state-of-the-art term, because "retard" and "retarded" have so long been used as insults.) The drive that the intellectually disabled have to work is obvious to anyone who knows them. "They're just thrilled when they get a job," says Madeleine Will, chairperson of the committee. "They want the things the rest of us want."

    But the array of government programs for the intellectually disabled assumes that they can never be employed. Improvements during the past 30 years in special education and in health care make this less true than ever. "We don't have low expectations for the disabled when it comes to work," says Tom Nerney, director of the Center for Self-Determination, "we have no expectations."

    What the president's committee essentially recommends is bringing the welfare-reform revolution to a new class of people. Just as archaic, well-intentioned, but misbegotten programs caught inner-city women in dependency, outdated programs for the disabled make them wards of the state. Reformers want to bring some of the principles of President George Bush's "ownership society" -- individual choice, flexibility, asset accumulation -- to bear on the programs for the disabled.

    Supplemental Security Insurance, for instance, is a trap. The disabled rely on it heavily, even though it provides a relative pittance. The program hasn't been indexed for inflation since its creation in the 1970s. But supplementing SSI with work income is almost impossible. Under SSI, a recipient begins to lose $1 for every $2 earned once he makes just $65 a month. He can't have more than $2,000 in savings. The thrust of the program is to keep recipients dependent, in what Nerney calls a policy of "forced impoverishment."

    The president's committee proposes creating savings accounts that wouldn't count against SSI, and streamlining the process whereby states can get a waiver from the federal government so SSI and Medicaid funds can be used more flexibly. Florida has secured such a waiver. The Center for Self-Determination helped the state design a program that will allow the disabled to escape bureaucratic rules and use public dollars to build more independent lives.

    The idea is to fund the person rather than a one-size-fits-all government program. With assistance from a planner, the disabled person will come up with a budget that fits his needs and dreams, whether that means paying for transportation to get to work, or for classes and work training, or for something else. The reform has the enthusiastic backing of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican. (It is a sign of how policy creativity is increasingly a phenomenon of the right that the most innovative program for the intellectually disabled in the country has the backing of one of the nation's most conservative governors.)

    When the disabled work, and can make more rational choices about how to use benefit dollars, government ultimately saves money. An example: Special government-provided transportation for the disabled is notoriously wasteful and expensive. It can be more efficient and cheaper to give the disabled money to pay for their own transportation. According to Nerney, a pilot program in New Hampshire in the early 1990s similar to the Florida initiative enrolled just 45 people and saved $300,000 annually.

    But the savings aren't as important as what is gained in human dignity when someone takes more control of his life. "Your status changes in this society when you have a job and you have money in your pocket," says Nerney. Intellectually disabled people who so desperately want to work understand that. We should too.