Cover Story
Krieg Barrie

Be less than you can be

Government | As this summer’s anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act recalls hope, federal disability programs are killing a liberal dream, undercutting a conservative victory, and leading millions to lie or lie around

Issue: "Reaping a whirlwind," Aug. 24, 2013

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Gollum almost stumps Bilbo with a riddle: This thing all things devours: Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; Gnaws iron, bites steel; Grinds hard stones to meal; Slays king, ruins town, And beats high mountain down. Grasping for more seconds, Bilbo pleads for “Time,” and realizes he’s hit upon the answer. 

Here’s a contemporary Washington riddle: Which federal programs have most savaged the goals of not only conservatives but liberals as well, not only adults but children, not only would-be workers but content-to-be-takers, and sometimes the truly needy? 

The answer: a complex of federal disability programs led by Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Smaller programs are also a mess—the Railroad Retirement Board last month revoked the disability benefits of 600 Long Island Rail Road retirees who were allegedly part of a massive fraud—but SSI and SSDI are the twin gorillas that cost a total of $190 billion.   

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Unsurprisingly, House hearings in late June revealed enormous amounts of fraud and mismanagement in the programs. Surprisingly, liberal legacies like The New York Times, the Boston Globe, and National Public Radio also castigated the programs. Journalists so far, though, have not connected the dots, showing how the failure of SSI and SSDI undercuts almost every disabled person, every government poverty-fighting activity, and every taxpayer. 

That’s what I’ll attempt to do in this story—and the place to start is with the anniversary of what in 1990 seemed a progressive breakthrough, President George H.W. Bush’s signing into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). His attorney general, Richard Thornburgh, called ADA “this bright moment in modern American history ... truly another emancipation.” Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a key sponsor, labeled ADA “an emancipation proclamation for people with handicaps” that will “fundamentally change their lives” by bringing them “into full participation in society.”

Press accounts reflected that optimism. A front-page USA Today article with the headline, “Disabilities no longer a job barrier,” called ADA “The most significant civil rights legislation in more than 25 years.” U.S. News & World Report, noting that companies now had to make their workplaces disabled-friendly and make sure their hiring and firing practices were nondiscriminatory, rhapsodized about “Liberation day for the disabled.” A Harris poll showed two-thirds of unemployed disabled people excited about going to work.

The reality was different. According to analysts Richard Burkhauser and Mary Daly, 39 percent of working-age men with disabilities had earnings in 1993. That dropped to 29 percent in 2004 and 26 percent in 2009. The percentage of working-age women with disabilities who earned some money declined similarly and was down to 23 percent in 2009.

The decline isn’t because disabilities are worse and more people are unable to work: Working-age people in 1980 and 2008 had the same degree of work limitations and a similar unemployment rate. 

The big difference is that official Washington through ADA said one thing—We’ll help you to work—but created incentives not to work. An SSDI-eligible person with minimum wage skills typically receives $1,100 per month from the government, plus free Medicare coverage after two years, plus other benefits. Overall he does better economically, in the short run, by staying home than by going to work. 

It’s no surprise that the number of people on SSDI (about 11 million with work histories) and SSI (about 8.2 million with little or no work background) has tripled since ADA passage. Let’s see how this works out in the life of one WORLD reader, David Cox. Cox was born with oxygen deprivation because of a twisted umbilical cord. He’s had neurological problems but has still shown determination, spending 10 years to get a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. 

Cox says, “I don’t like government assistance. All those crazy rules and regulations.” He says he could earn $16,000 on his own as a para-teacher of incarcerated youth, but then “I’d have no security if I lost my job, no Medicare.” So he restricts his teaching, not earning more than $700 per month, and in that way retains his SSDI payments from Washington. His disability is real. He’s entitled to what he receives. His financial calculations are sensible—but he’d rather work more, in the spirit of ADA.

Multiply Cox by several million. If those on SSDI and able to work do so, they lose benefits. If they save money, they lose benefits. If they return to work and have problems, they typically have to stop working for 5-15 months before getting onto SSDI again. The result: In 2011 only 7 percent of recipients left the government disability rolls. That’s exactly the opposite of what ADA’s liberal backers wanted. That’s also two-thirds less than the 20 percent who go back to work each year after being on private disability insurance. 

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