NPR is receiving significant flak for its recent series of reports entitled “Unfit for Work”, which looks at the increasing enrollment in the federal Social Security disability program. Disability advocates accuse NPR of generalizing about beneficiaries based on anecdotal stories of individuals who happen to live in economically depressed areas and have little education. They also point out that disability programs provide vital support to millions of people who would otherwise be forced to live in abject poverty.
These are fair criticisms, but both NPR and advocates fail to address some key points about disability benefits:
- The Health Care Angle: Disability benefits provide cash assistance, but they also provide much-needed access to Medicare and Medicaid. For people struggling with physical and mental health issues and no access to health insurance, this is a lifeline. They can receive treatment for their conditions and, in many cases, their health stabilizes or even improves. While Obamacare will improve access to health insurance, it does not require private plans to cover many of the specialized services that people with disabilities need. And those medical benefits disappear if disability benefits end. Which brings me to my next point…
- It’s A Trap!: Disability benefits are not designed to end. If an individual earns more than a few hundred dollars per month, they lose eligibility for both cash and health care benefits. This leaves beneficiaries in quandary. They can abstain from working and receive sufficient benefits to address their basic needs. Or they can attempt to work and risk losing the supports that have provided some semblance of stability in their lives. For most people, it’s not much of a choice
- Some Things Never Change: Disability and employment are still viewed as mutually exclusive concepts by policymakers, bureaucrats, and ordinary people. Rather than regarding disability as a continuum where individuals might require varying levels of support, our laws treat disability in binary terms. Either you are disabled and you can look forward to a lifetime of subsidized poverty. Or you aren’t disabled and you’re on your own when it comes to finding health care and any other supports you might need. Advocates become understandably defensive when disability benefits are questioned, but we shouldn’t be hesitant to question the assumptions and prejudices that inform our policies. The world is changing. Disability benefits were designed at a time when we were still an industrial nation, but that isn’t true anymore. We can still provide economic security for people with disabilities while giving them the opportunity to explore the possibilities of work.