Defending the Disabled
James Ledbetter seems to hate SSDI recipients more than most conservatives hate the unemployed. And for that, he’s an idiot.
There’s a lot of things in his article that offend me. In my alter-ego day job, I spend a lot of time helping retired coal miners receive their pensions. And a great deal of those are seeking disability payments due to mine accidents. Qualifying for SSDI and for the UMWA’s disability pensions is incredibly difficult, requiring hundreds of documents, tests, medical records, x-rays, analysis, witness testimony, etc. And it’s not always a sure thing, especially when it comes to the sickness-side of disability (mental illness, disabetes, etc.) as opposed to injury-related.
But aside from his basic argument, Ledbetter’s specifics can be offensive, too. He claims SSDI is spiraling out of control, noting that the program has 8 million beneficiairies compared to 1 million in 1966. He fails to consider that benefits for a long-term disability have a cumulative effect – a new person enrolled doesn’t mean some one else is forced out, like in college. Also, people are living longer and working longer than ever, in jobs that are increasingly demanding in their productivity while slowly becoming less interested in worker safety. Of course more people will get disabled under those conditions!
But he saves his greatest wrath for the mentally ill. Never mind that mental health parity laws and the growing reliance on mentally-sound industries like communications and high-technology require use to treat the mentally ill as humanely as the physically ill. And never mind that growing recognition of serious illnesses like schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, Down syndrome, autism, etc. He seems to think that the growth in new enrollees due to mental illness in the last twenty-five years (from 50K to 200K a year) is itself a problem. But if you consider that the total enrolled has grown three-fold in that same period, a 4-fold increase in the mentally ill does not, by itself, look to be all that interesting, especially considering the mitigating factors I briefly mentioned.
There is no question that some SSDI recipients might be able to find work – in theory. Just like, in theory, some of the unemployed could find work. But that assumes a greater physical mobility than is available in the Great Recession. After all, states like Alabama and West Virginia where obesity is rampant but jobs are not, it is not at all surprising that the alternative to finding a job near your home is either to acknowledge your physical limitations or try to sell your house and simply leave the state.
There are a lot of problems right now, some of which are reinforced and made apparent by the current economic conditions. But the right-wing’s obsession with trimming government spending and entitlement reform in general seems to be misdiagnosing the real problems we face. Let’s try to alleviate the causes of disability, instead of merely shuffling the disabled back into a workforce that cannot employ everyone already looking for a job.