Thursday, October 23, 2014

Disability the new welfare?

Update on the NPR article of disability benefits

By Tim Wheat
Over a year ago Planet Money and NPR ran a story about Disability Benefits in the United States.  I know that a lot of people in the disability community had been following the article because it is a unique perspective on disability and thought it would have an impact on our community. The author, Chana Joffe-Walt, is on the Planet Money team at NPR and wrote about the program from its economic impact rather than exclusively as a social-service program. 

The article does not seem to have sent large vibrations through the disability community and advocates for people with disabilities seem unaware or unconvinced about her conclusion that disability is replacing welfare. That generally welfare to work has seen a decrease in the number of American families on welfare, but in that same time, individuals of working age have replaced welfare programs with Social Security Disability.  
Chart of the percentage of population on worker's disability

“Somewhere around 30 years ago, the economy started changing in some fundamental ways,” reported Chana Joffe-Walt in the piece. “There are now millions of Americans who do not have the skills or education to make it in this country.”

The title on the web is “Unfit for Work: The startling rise of disability in America.” That name seems to leave out all the people with disabilities that are working now and the many programs that help to move people with disabilities out of institutions and backrooms into the community and the workforce. Much of the narrative was about people that used disability as a method of not working, and it gave me the impression that the Social Security Disability Insurance program is loaded with fraud. Of course, I have not examined SSDI from the author’s perspective and it brought out some very clear problems that CPWD and our consumers should pay close attention to.

First, Chana Joffe-Walt calls the application and appeal system of the Social Security system the Disability-Industrial complex. The “industrial” part of her analogy are “disability lawyers;” like Bender and Bender, who are paid out of the “lump-sum” settlement payment. A Center for Independent Living providing the same service gets nothing. It should be clear to our community that IL Centers work with people with disabilities to accomplish inclusive community goals and employment; and it should be clear to CPWD that assisting with the SSDI application is not our job.

For a Center for Independent Living, the job seems to be clear. Since the American’s with Disability Act in 1990 the employment rate for people with disabilities has remained basically unchanged. Despite people with disabilities wanting to work and the ADA providing reasonable accommodations, the overall numbers have not changed in the past 23 years. The article made me think that too often people see disability as a way out of the workforce; Center’s for Independent Living need to change that impression.

The author’s point about federal disability replacing welfare was interesting. Clearly Welfare and Disability are not the same, but she makes a very good case that the many people leaving Welfare are turning to SSDI. This again seems to a type of fraud in the system that is not as clear on a personal basis. Each individual has to make a case that they cannot work because of a disability which is not the same as Welfare.
Charts showing the decline of people on welfare and rise of people on disability

To make the fraud more evident, Chana Joffe-Walt shows the motive states have to move people off of Welfare, which is paid for mostly by individual US states, onto SSDI paid for by the federal Social Security Administration. States save money by hiring people to move citizens from Welfare to Disability and the overall numbers that the author gives seems to show that trend. In 1993 there were about 5 million Americans on Welfare and under 4.5 million on Disability. In 2011 Welfare had fallen to under 2 million, while people receiving disability payments expanded to over 6.5 million. It is not clear how many people went from Welfare to work and how many went from Welfare to Disability.

I highly recommend this article to everyone because I found it to be such a new perspective and valuable insight into the federal programs.