I am physically disabled.  And because I am medically disabled, I am eligible for, and receive, Social Security disability benefits.  Which is why this story hit me so hard.

It is not always possible to tell if someone is disabled by just looking at them. Sometimes, perfectly healthy looking folks can actually be dealing with very serious illnesses.   You see some guy parking in a disabled parking spot, and when he gets out of the car, he looks okay.  You think, ‘what’s his deal?  Cheater!’  We judge.  And when it comes to our tax dollars, we can tend to judge with particular harshness.  So we think, why are perfectly healthy (looking) people sitting around all day doing nothing on my dime?  Jesus would not have told us not to judge people if it wasn’t a sin human beings are particularly fond of.

Around seven million people receive Social Security disability benefits annually.  And it’s possible that a few of those recipients are undeserving.  I found this story on the interwebs, expressing a fairly typical outrage over how much money deadbeats are costing the government.  By golly, if we could catch all the disability cheats, we could basically . . . cut the deficit by some tiny fraction of one percent.

And that’s the thing: I just doubt all that many people cheat. The Social Security Administration estimates that fewer than one percent of disability benefits receive them inappropriately, and my guess is that even those cases aren’t about cheaters, but more about seriously sick people who have gotten marginally better.

I can tell you from personal experience that the application process for disability benefits is a rigorous one.  The paperwork wasn’t onerous, but it was detailed, and the paperwork my doctors had to fill out was equally daunting.  I’m not saying the process is needlessly bureaucratic or filled with endless amounts of red tape. That was not the case.  I thought it managed to walk a fine line between efficiency and thoroughness.  But I also have reason to believe that my case wasn’t terribly border-liney.

But we don’t like it when deadbeats get away with it.  We really get ticked off.  That’s why Ronald Reagan got so much political mileage from stories about Cadillac-driving welfare cheats.  The fact that those stories were fictional was irrelevant; we really hate the idea of our tax dollars supporting lazy bums. We’re sure it happens a lot–undeserving poor people mooching off hard-working Americans.  We probably even have anecdotal evidence of that kind of indolent malfeasance: ‘I knew someone once who. . . .’

And, you know, it’s quite possible that some conservative critiques of welfare have some truth to them.  I don’t doubt that, for some people, welfare can become a lifestyle, that poverty can become generational.  I don’t doubt that some kinds of welfare foster dependency.  But the statistics suggest that most food stamp recipients, for example, only receive them for a few months–that they do what they’re supposed to, provide a short time safety net for folks trying to get back on their feet.  In fact, the best evidence suggests that welfare dependency does exist, but that it’s nowhere as pervasive as we think.

Most people would rather work.  I sure as heck would.  I loved my job (most of it), and would go back in a second, if I was physically able to.  And I’ve gotten to know quite a few disabled people lately, and I don’t know a single one who wouldn’t much prefer to have a job.

So Great Britain, with an economy tanking due to, frankly, bad economic theories put into practice, decided to go after disability cheats.  Prime Minister David Cameron declared that hundreds of thousands of Brits were ripping off the system, pretending to be ill when they really were capable of working.

So they outsourced the nasty job of kicking people off disability.  They hired a French firm to sift through the disability rolls,with the obvious intent of kicking people off.

And seriously sick people, including (anecdotal evidence, to be sure), a guy examined two days after having a stroke, were declared ineligible, lost their benefits.

Because it’s all relative, isn’t it?  We can’t tell how much pain someone is in from just looking at them, can we?  We don’t know what kind of job someone might be capable of doing.

Can you work?  Could you hold down a job?  I can walk, a little.  I only need my wheelchair some days.  And I do work–I write, hours every day.  I get paid for some of it (and every time I get paid, my benefits are correspondingly reduced).  I can cook dinner, and do.  I can do some things.

So now, as austerity continues to fail in Great Britain, as it increases misery and does nothing positive in regards to employment, as spending cuts lead to more misery and more suffering, while the economy continues to languish, American conservatives remain unaccountably enamored by it.  And this is next, I think. Cutting spending means looking for waste and misapplied spending.  It would not surprise me to see the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund come under scrutiny.

Some conservatives are already calling for it. Jonah Goldberg wrote about it in April.  His proposal; have every disability benefit recipient report to a government appointed doctor for an examination, and a up or down spot judgment about eligibility.  The point, of course, is to save money.  By cracking down on sick people.

But see, that’s the thing about austerity, as an economic principle.  It carries with it the possibility of that kind of foolishness, that sort of mean-spirited judgment. It’s time, pre-emptively, to oppose it.  Sick people aren’t cheating for the most part, and the few who might be aren’t costing enough to be worth spending a lot time catching.  And that guy in the parking lot, the guy with the handicapped parking sticker who appears, as far as you can see, to be perfectly healthy? You have no idea what kind of pain he might be in, what invisible ailments have made his life a torment. And Jesus doesn’t like it when you judge that guy.




One thought on “Disability

  1. juliathepoet


    For me this is very timely. I have spent over a year unable to even look for work because of back problems. I never thought of applying for SSI because I had surgical options that have been mostly successful. I have finally had both surgeries, and they have been largely successful. While I am in a wheelchair and have had a temporary handicap parking thing, (since the first surgery) I hadn’t thought of applying.

    After my second surgery, I have started to have heart problems. Heart rate soared in the OR, and since them, it and my blood pressure have been out of whack. That has meant recovery is slow because any physical therapy make my heart rate and blood pressure dangerous.

    I still wouldn’t have thought about applying for SSI, but a lot of (medical type) people assumed I must already be on it. Those assumptions have made me at least look at the application process for SSI. I still hope I don’t need it, but what the cardiologist says will heavily influence my decision. Most people I have talked to, like me, did not apply because they wanted to. Even if someone (or many someones) told them that they thought they should apply, it was still a hard decision, with an emotional toll. All of my friends who receive it would rather be working. The recent political rhetoric has only made them feel worse about something they can control.

    I doubt I would get a huge amount if I do apply, but I might need the extra medical safety net, if the cardiologist says this isn’t going away. Much as I hate to admit it, if the meds I am on are the most that can be done for me, working, (or finishing my degree and then working) aren’t going to be realistic.

    As one friend on SSI said, “If I could have my old job where I could work totally flexible hours, and get paid for fulltime work, even on the weeks where 5 hours is all I can do, then of course I would go back to work.” Unfortunately airplane pilots (his former profession) don’t usually have those jobs. I doubt that my previous middle management jobs would have the flexibility I would need right now, but if anyone knows of a job that would accommodate the random days when I need 16-18 hours of sleep, I would love to know about it. I’ll send my resume right way!


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