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In Plain Sight

Has disability become a 'de facto welfare program'?

When President Clinton signed "welfare reform" into law in 1996, he promised to end welfare as we know it. Now, some new reporting suggests we've created a new kind of welfare -- only most Americans aren't aware of it. 

The number of people who depend on checks from Social Security's disability programs has soared in recent years, according to NPR's series "Unfit for Work: the Startling Rise of Disability in America." The reports, which began over the weekend and continue this week, raise the question: How disabled are the recipients, really? As you might imagine, they have touched a nerve.

A quick primer: the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program provides monthly cash assistance to people who are poor and disabled, including families with disabled children. The basic monthly SSI cash benefit is a set amount -- currently $710 for an individual and $1,066 for a couple. The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program also provides monthly cash assistance, to disabled people who have worked in jobs covered by Social Security. People who leave the workforce and go on disability also qualify for Medicare. 

After six months of investigation, NPR reporter Chana Joffee-Walt concluded that Social Security's disability programs have become "a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills." In the past three decades, she reports, the number of Americans who are on disability has skyrocketed:

Every month, 14 million people now get a disability check from the government.

The federal government spends more money each year on cash payments for disabled former workers than it spends on food stamps and welfare combined. [...]

[And] story of these programs -- who goes on them, and why, and what happens after that -- is, to a large extent, the story of the U.S. economy. It's the story not only of an aging workforce, but also of a hidden, increasingly expensive safety net.

Joffee-Walt's report takes listeners to Hale County, Ala., where one in four working-age adults is on disability, a local doctor is the go-to-guy for people in pain, and 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" because people are relatively flush with cash.

She takes us inside "the disability industrial complex," including one of the private call centers that states pay to scrutinize their welfare rolls, contact as many people as possible who might qualify for federal disability payments, and move them off the state's rolls and into the federal disability system. 

The PCG [Public Consulting Group] agents help the potentially disabled fill out the Social Security disability application over the phone. And by help, I mean the agents actually do the filling out. When the potentially disabled don't have the right medical documentation to prove a disability, the agents at PCG help them get it. They call doctors' offices; they get records faxed. If the right medical records do not exist, PCG sets up doctors' appointments and calls applicants the day before to remind them of those appointments.

Joffee-Walt also reports on the 1.3 million kids on SSI, and says that some parents in Hale County told her they want kids who can "pull a check" so the family gets extra income. She suggests that some families who are surviving on that check may be holding their kids back from overcoming disabilities because they don't want to lose the money. 

Critics call the report riddled with factual errorsdevoid of context and "ill-informed". NPR's This American Life says it stands by its story.

The essence of the backlash is this: While critics admit the NPR report raises worthwhile questions, they say it does so in a sensational manner, traffics in inaccuracies and myths about Social Security's disability programs, and fails to tell the story about the millions of people these disability programs help. Here's how one critical analysis puts it:

The piece ignored that the recent rise in disability benefits is tied to the recession and higher rates of poverty, that qualifying for benefits is difficult, that SSI encourages employment, and that the current program has significantly reduced poverty among children with disabilities.

Listen to the report, read the criticisms, tell us your thoughts and personal experiences with the Social Security disability programs.