The Massive Increase in Disabled People

This weekend the entire hour of This American Life radio program was dedicated to the issues associated with Social Security Disability.  The program dedicated the whole hour to Chana Joffe Walt exploring the SSDI program after noticing a sharp increase in the numbers.   She looked at the lawyers who help get people the proper appeal, the children who are ruled disabled, and the states that are using the program as an alternative to welfare.  There are now 14 million currently living on disability which averages around $13,000 per year. Ms. Joffe Walt makes the point that people would rather live on a stable income with health care rather than the worst possible minimum wage jobs standing all day without health care.  The most amazing part of the story was the woman in Alabama who had no concept of any job that did not involve walking around.  The only person that she had every come in contact with a sit down job was the lady who processed her Social Security claim.  Every other job in her Alabama County involved standing including the fish processing plant, convenience store, nurses, and child care employees. 

Ohio must not have been one of the states that had figured out that transferring the bills to federal government can save millions, because it takes so long to get through the appeal process in Ohio.  There are so many people in limbo waiting for their disability claim.   You can't really work while the claim is being processed or it destroys your case that you are in fact disabled.  It can take years to get access to the proper medical reports, lawyer and to be heard by the appeals judge.  It was fascinating to hear from the doctor in Alabama who was approving these disability claims.  His point was that people who do not even have a high school diploma and there are no real non-hard labor jobs in the community.  The individual has no shot of finding stable employment that they could reasonably expect to perform and therefore met the guidelines for being able-bodied. 

In Hale County, Alabama, 1 in 4 working-age adults is on disability. On the day government checks come in every month, banks stay open late, Main Street fills up with cars, and anybody looking to unload an old TV or armchair has a yard sale.

 It was especially revealing that there were companies working on behalf of county and state governements to comb through the welfare roles and find people who could be switched to the federally supported SSDI program.  These companies get paid for every person that they get on the federal program, and those individual most likely will never work again and will be on federal disability until they reach 65 or 67.  The number of welfare recipients has decreased at the same time the number of people on SSDI increased.  The number of welfare recipients is down from a high of 5 million to around 2.5 million while disability among low income people rose from 5 million in 1995 to 7 million last year.  Some stats from SSDI:

  • 33.8% on the program suffer from Back Pain or other Musculoskeletal disorders.
  • 19.2% on the program suffer from Mental Illness and Developmental disabilities.
  • 10.6% on the program suffer from Heart Disease or stroke
  • 9.2% on the program suffer from Cancer
  • 8.2% on the program suffer from Neurological Disorders
  • 7.7% on the program suffer from other disorders.
  • 4.1% suffer from Respitory Disease
  • 3.7% suffer from Injuries
  • 3.4% suffer from Diabetes.

It was a very good show, and raises a bunch of big issues.  We hope that we can have an adult conversation in the United States about this trend and this will not turn into another discussion about "welfare queens."


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