In the U.S. we like to think we’re all about enabling people. We ban discrimination based on creed or color. We insist that facilities be accessible to the disabled. We brag about an America where anyone can climb the ladder of success.
We’re also a compassionate people, eager to help each other. That’s why there’s a generous safety net in place, to catch anyone who happens to fall while climbing the ladder. Welfare, Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps and many other programs are in place to help those who are down-on-their-luck.
The problem is when the safety net becomes an actual net, ensnaring people and preventing them from rising.
Consider the Social Security Disability program. Here’s a safety net built especially to catch those who are severely injured and simply unable to work. That’s been a problem throughout human history, of course. People get hurt at work, lose digits or limbs, or simply wear out after decades of hard labor. Many have needed some help over the decades.
However, in our time, most work is less physically taxing than it’s ever been. Rather than plowing the fields, most people ply computer keyboards. Rather than working with big industrial machines such as Stephen King’s “The Mangler,” most people work in safe office buildings. Even smoking on the job, once ubiquitous, is a thing of the past.
And yet, the share of the U.S. population on Social Security Disability almost doubled between 1985 and 2005. And that’s before the 2008 recession hit.
“A record 5.4 million workers and their dependents have signed up to collect federal disability checks since President Obama took office, according to the latest official government data, as discouraged workers increasingly give up looking for jobs and take advantage of the federal program,” Investor’s Business Daily wrote last year.
Not only are there more people filing for disability benefits, there are more people getting stuck on disability.
“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.