Cover Story

Be less than you can be

"Be less than you can be" Continued...

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

In essence, there’s good reason to believe that while Republicans boasted of TANF success in trimming the rolls, and some former recipients did go to work, SSI and SSDI for many became the new, improved welfare: Improved from the recipients’ perspective because they often received much higher stipends, without any pressure to work. Some Republicans had complained about “welfare queens,” but no one wanted to seem so unfeeling as to speak of disability queens—and kings. A national anti-welfare mood meant that from 1996 to 2003 the maximum cash benefit for AFDC/TANF families stayed the same or declined in 32 states and went up in 18, although not by as much as inflation. Meanwhile, the federal SSI rate increased by 17 percent. 

Napping conservatives did not realize that not only individuals but states had strong financial reasons to make disability the new welfare. States received TANF block grants, with Washington agreeing to give states the same amount they received in 1996 even as TANF expenses fell. Meanwhile, the federal government paid directly all SSI and SSDI costs, which meant that states could make money by urging TANF recipients to move on over to the federal disability programs.

National Public Radio was shocked to learn that some states even hire firms to contact welfare recipients and push them to qualify for some kind of disability, with states then able to shift recipients from state welfare rolls onto the federal dole. Some modern bounty hunters receive $2,000 for each person they can move from TANF to disability: NPR reported that one out of four working-age adults in poor Hale County, Ala., was receiving disability payments, and called SSDI “a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills.” 

We’ve already covered in WORLD the huge increase in the number of children on SSI, and the tragic results of over-medication as some grasping parents seek mental disability status for their youthful meal tickets (see “Disabling Security,” WORLD, Dec. 17, 2011). But what are the effects on adults of disability lures? Christian poverty-fighters a century ago shared an 11th commandment: Do no harm. Do not remove work incentives. Now, analysts Burkhauser and Daly write about hundreds of thousands who “weigh the advantages of a continued struggle in the labor market relative to … application for SSI-disabled adults benefits.”

Americans, long known as people with a can-do attitude, now plot to have themselves declared: Can’t do. Last year 3 million people were new applicants for SSI or SSDI: Benefit claims have increased by 25 percent during the past five years. Scoliosis-burdened Wozny has seen how at ground level “the system is flooded with people just trying to get a free ride.” She sees lawyers shouting in TV ads, “Disabled? Get the money you deserve!” (One she contacted assumed she wanted to fake it, and told her what to do.) She sees doctors who think they’re doing unemployed patients a favor by certifying them as helpless.  

Denied applicants typically request reconsideration: It might seem that twice turned-down applicants wouldn’t have much chance, but congressional investigators found the vast majority of last-chance judges approve benefits more than half the time. Some judges are umpires who almost never call third strikes: The Wall Street Journal reported that one West Virginia judge awarded benefits in 1,001 of the 1,003 cases he decided in 2011, and in 1,280 of his 1,284 decisions in 2012. And yet, a study last year by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago showed that if applicants denied benefits initially did not have an appeal option, their employment rate would be 35 percent higher. 

SSI and SSDI do psychological harm to individuals and financial harm to the United States as a whole. If we stay on our present course, federal programs like Social Security and Medicare will run out of money within two decades—but SSDI, which ran a $25 billion deficit last year, will run out of money in 2016, according to projections by Social Security’s trustees. They predict the system that year will collect only enough money in payroll taxes to pay 80 percent of benefits, triggering an automatic 20 percent cut in benefits—unless Congress acts. 

For some who can work, a 20 percent cut is survivable. For others, it would be devastating. This is not an abstract problem for Josh McFarland, a pastor with a 15-year-old daughter who has “the mental cognition of roughly a 2-year-old child, and severely autistic tendencies. She receives SSI and a lot of state help which, for the record, both my wife and I have struggled with over the years. Unfortunately, her need is great, and we simply have had no choice but to accept the programs which exist for people like her. Sometimes dealing with her needs seems to consume us, and I cannot imagine what would happen if the help she is getting now simply stopped.”

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