“Once people go onto disability, they almost never go back to work. Fewer than 1 percent of those who were on the federal program for disabled workers at the beginning of 2011 have returned to the workforce since then,” NPR’s Chana Joffe-Walt reports. “Disability has also become a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills. But it wasn't supposed to serve this purpose; it’s not a retraining program designed to get people back onto their feet.”
Something scary is going on here. Far from enabling Americans to rise, we’re trapping millions at the bottom. And once they’ve gone to the government and announced “I can’t work,” the chances are slim that they’ll change their minds five or ten years later. “Going on disability means, assuming you rely only on those disability payments, you will be poor for the rest of your life. That’s the deal. And it’s a deal 14 million Americans have signed up for,” Joffe-Walt adds.
Disability programs can be mentally as well as physically disabling. A friend who used to handle worker’s compensation claims told me about a woman who “tested out” of the disability program. A third-party medical review stated she was fit to return to work, so her benefits were scheduled to end. The recipient was so upset she threatened to jump off her balcony. “That’s when I knew I had to leave that job,” my friend comments. Luckily, she left it for another job, not to go on disability.
The message of empowerment remains powerful in American politics. “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else,” the president announced during his second Inaugural Address.
Set aside questions about whether that is true (it will simply never be possible to give a child born in “the bleakest poverty” the same opportunities that Bill Gates’ children enjoy). Instead, we should ask whether we’re really empowering poor children, and poor Americans in general, today.
Today’s bleak economy has many fathers, so there will be no easy solution. But as a starter we need to regulations and encourage companies to hire again. And we need to enable more Americans to work, by reducing the number stuck on disability. Only when we do that will we be true to our American creed.