August 27th, 2006

Voted for Dean

How Long Until John Q. Taxpayer Demands SSDI Reform?

The statistic that I use to measure the actual health of the economy is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and it's called the Seasonally Adjusted Employment-Population Ratio. Unlike the official "Unemployment Rate" which has been politicked all around Robin Hood's barn to the point where it means absolutely nothing, there's no screwing around with definitions in the Employment-Population Ratio. All it does is call 65,000 people at random every month and ask two questions: are you between the ages of 16 and 64? If so, are you employed at all right now? Right this minute, that number stands at 63.0%. That's down from a peak, about the time that George W. Bush took office, of 64.7%. That is to say, 1.7% of the US population between the ages of 16 and 64, who would have had a job if the economy were still like it was under Bill Clinton, aren't working now. Given the CIA World Fact book estimate of about 200 million people in that age range, that's not quite three and a half million people.

About a month ago, the New York Times wrote an article asking how those 3,400,000 people who used to have jobs are getting by: Louis Uchitelle and David Leonhardt, "Men Not Working, and Not Wanting Just Any Job," New York Times, July 31st, 2006. And one part of that article caught my eye, because it lines up with a prediction I made in October of 2004. First the quote:
Many of these men could find work if they had to, but with lower pay and fewer benefits than they once earned, and they have decided they prefer the alternative. ... the fastest growing source of help is a patchwork system of government support, the main one being federal disability insurance, which is financed by Social Security payroll taxes. ... No federal entitlement program is growing as quickly, with more than 6.5 million men and women now receiving monthly disability payments, up from 3 million in 1990. About 25 percent of the missing men are collecting this insurance. ¶ The ailments that qualify them are usually real, like back pain, heart trouble or mental illness. But in some cases, the illnesses are not so serious that they would prevent people from working if a well-paying job with benefits were an option.
One of these days, we really need to have a serious nationwide discussion in this country about what, exactly, we want to do about people that employers could employ, but don't want to. I doubt that we're going to do so, but we really do need to. See, here's the thing: the Americans with Disabilities Act says that if you have the skills to do a job, employers have to make any reasonable accommodation to your handicaps, if any. But the term "reasonable accommodation" is not defined in the ADA, and the case law on the subject is sparse and inconsistent. It clearly means, as it did in my case, that there are a lot of people who qualify for "real work" when the job market is tight, as it was in 1999 and 2000. Trained in construction work, but have a bad back? We'll find you a non-lifting job. Computer operator, but phobic of wearing clothes for more than a few minutes at a time? We'll stick you on third shift. Engineer, but with a communication disorder, perceptive disorder, or personality disorder that makes other people not want to work with you? We'll hide you from middle and senior management and tell your co-workers who aren't crazy to suck it up and deal. Willing to learn any job, but learning disabled so it takes you longer than most? We'll take the time. Yep, the ADA requires employers to do all of those things ... when it's reasonable to do so. Which, so far as I can tell, means "when we've run out of everybody else and the job absolutely has to be done here and now," which is to say, not any time in the last five and a half years.

Nor get me started on people who didn't or couldn't finish school, and people with minor prison records, who somehow found work during the Clinton administration but are unemployed now. No law requires employers to even try. Welfare-to-Work tax incentives try to bribe employers into hiring them, but in this economy employers find it more efficient to let the job not get done, or to outsource it to some other country so our workers don't have to work alongside "those kind of people."

But what do we expect the disabled who aren't being accommodated, the under-educated, and those with prison records to do -- lie down and die? They can't go on welfare, the general public assistance funds that were set up during the Great Depression were dismantled more than 30 years ago. Under Nixon, one form of welfare remained: adults could root, hog, or die but children shouldn't starve, so unemployed and unemployable parents qualified for a program that people still mistakenly called welfare, Aid to Families of Dependent Children or AFDC. But, as I wrote back in July of last year, all it took for those who wanted us to believe it was morally okay to hate the poor was to publicize the heck out of a tiny scattered handful of fraud cases, and a tiny handful of cases of people who were abusing the system, to stir up a public that refused to be ripped off, and now if you need AFDC because no employer in America wants you if they have any alternative, after a couple of months your children can just starve for all the taxpayers care, because one of the things that Republicans and right-wing Democrats all agreed on was the urgency of cracking down on "lazy welfare bums."

Well, back in October of 2004 I speculated that since an awful lot of those people technically qualify as disabled for reasons of mental disorder, it was just a matter of time before Social Security Disability Insurance, the program that pays my bills now, would become "the new welfare." And knowing how much Americans hate the idea that somebody who they think could work some kind of a job, even a menial job, getting by on public assistance I've been wondering how long it would be before the rapidly rising numbers of people on SSDI would become a national political issue. And an article like that one in the Times make it look to me like I was right. Some time in 2008, 2012, or 2016 at the latest some Republican candidate or yet another right-wing Democrat is going to ride to the White House on a platform of cracking down on lazy SSDI bums.
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