The Right Opinion

Men Find Careers in Collecting Disability

By Michael Barone · Dec. 3, 2012

Americans are very generous to people with disabilities. Since passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, millions of public and private dollars have been spent on curb cuts, bus lifts and special elevators.

The idea has been to enable people with disabilities to live and work with the same ease as others, as they make their way forward in life. I feel sure the large majority of Americans are pleased that we are doing this.

But there is another federal program for people with disabilities that has had an unhappier effect. This is the disability insurance (DI) program, which is part of Social Security.

The idea is to provide income for those whose health makes them unable to work. For many years, it was a small and inexpensive program that few people or politicians paid much attention to.

In his recent book, “A Nation of Takers: America's Entitlement Epidemic,” my American Enterprise Institute colleague Nicholas Eberstadt has shown how DI has grown in recent years.

In 1960, some 455,000 workers were receiving disability payments. In 2011, the number was 8,600,000. In 1960, the percentage of the economically active 18-to-64 population receiving disability benefits was 0.65 percent. In 2010, it was 5.6 percent.

Some four decades ago, when I was a law clerk to a federal judge, I had occasion to read briefs in cases appealing denial of disability benefits. The Social Security Administration then seemed pretty strict in denying benefits in dubious cases. The courts were not much more openhanded.

Things have changed. Americans have grown healthier, and significantly lower numbers die before 65 than was the case a half-century ago. Nevertheless, the disability rolls have ballooned.

One reason is that the government seems to have gotten more openhanded with those claiming vague ailments. Eberstadt points out that in 1960, only one-fifth of disability benefits went to those with “mood disorders” and “muscoskeletal” problems. In 2011, nearly half of those on disability voiced such complaints.

“It is exceptionally difficult – for all practical purposes, impossible,” writes Eberstadt, “for a medical professional to disprove a patient's claim that he or she is suffering from sad feelings or back pain.”

In other words, many people are gaming or defrauding the system. This includes not only disability recipients but health care professionals, lawyers and others who run ads promising to get you disability benefits.

Between 1996 and 2011, the private sector generated 8.8 million new jobs, and 4.1 million people entered the disability rolls.

The ratio of disability cases to new jobs has been even worse during the sluggish recovery from the 2007-09 recession. Between January 2010 and December 2011, there were 1,730,000 new jobs and 790,000 new people collecting disability.

This is not just a matter of laid-off workers in their 50s or early 60s qualifying for disability in the years before they become eligible for Social Security old age benefits.

In 2011, 15 percent of disability recipients were in their 30s or early 40s. Concludes Eberstadt, “Collecting disability is an increasingly important profession in America these says.”

Disability insurance is no longer a small program. The government transfers some $130 billion obtained from taxpayers or borrowed from purchasers of Treasury bonds to disability beneficiaries every year.

But there is also a human cost. Consider the plight of someone who at some level knows he can work but decides to collect disability payments instead.

That person is not likely to ever seek work again, especially if the sluggish recovery turns out to be the new normal.

He may be gleeful that he was able to game the system or just grimly determined to get what he can in a tough situation. But he will not be able to get the satisfaction of earned success from honest work that contributes something to society and the economy.

I use the masculine pronoun intentionally, because an increasing number of American men have dropped out of the workforce altogether. In 1948, 89 percent of men age 20 and over were in the workforce.

In 2011, 73 percent were. Only a small amount of that change results from an aging population. Jobs have become physically less grueling and economically more rewarding than they were in 1948.

The Americans With Disabilities Act helped many people move forward and contribute to society. The explosive growth of disability insurance has had an opposite effect.



Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

LIRR workers were ridin' the gravy train of, "GIMME, GIMME", until special investigators shot their golden goose! How 'bout 50,000 for a hangnail, or 100,000 guaranteed payments for blotchy skin, or 60,000 lump sum for swollen ankles?Patriots---Be Bold ,Be strong, for the LORD God is with thee!!!

Monday, December 3, 2012 at 5:52 AM

Doktor Riktor Von Zhades in Western KY said:

"He may be gleeful that he was able to game the system or just grimly determined to get what he can in a tough situation. But he will not be able to get the satisfaction of earned success from honest work that contributes something to society and the economy."


To be quite honest, I don't think that such a person cares if he does or not. It's gimmie, gimmie, gimmie....

Monday, December 3, 2012 at 7:41 AM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA said:

The truly ugly side of this is it makes those who are legitimately disabled lumped in with the parasites. I suffer from depression and have for many years. In spite of that, I spent 22 years in the Army and then worked after I retired. It was more important to me to earn a living and take care of my family. Probably because my father and mother taught me that I wasn't owed anything in this life and to never depend on others for my well-being. A lot of these mood disorders are nothing more than psycho-babble pushed by Psychiatrists and Psychologists.

Monday, December 3, 2012 at 11:27 AM

Doktor Riktor Von Zhades in Western KY replied:

Wayne I would add that the same pscho-babblers are the largest pushers of prescription drugs that usually work for a bit, and then cause more harm than good.

Monday, December 3, 2012 at 1:33 PM

Robinius in Broomfield, Colorado said:

I just retired at the age of 64. I had polio in 1952 and have limped through my life since. I feel great satisfaction that I worked from 1968-2012, paying my taxes, FICA, Medicare, etc. like all the normal people around me. The possibility of filing for disability never crossed my mind. I was able to work and I did and I mostly enjoyed it. My father's respect for that meant a lot to me. I know there are many people who cannot work and need help. I also know there are many, many lazy people out there who have found a free ride. The former I respect, the latter I find despicable.

Monday, December 3, 2012 at 2:15 PM

Rod in USA said:

Not everyone is gaming the system. My sister has epilepsy and suffers frequent seizures. She is 37 and draws a small amount of DI. She cannot drive for risk of catastrophic timing on a seizure. Her seizures are at best moderately controlled and she could have filed a lawsuit against a doctor and pharmaceutical. Company for gross negligence in keeping br her on an experimental med for 16 years, a med she should never have been on in the first place.

Now I am very conservative and against lawsuits. But this was a gross case and she needs her DI.

Most citizens would not deny that. The trick is as suggested .... How to determine who is gaming the system? Some days I wonder if my sister could in fact work, but it.would be halftime and under very controlled conditions, at best.

Were it not for excessuve taxation caused by waste and stupid congress tricks, the private sector may have found a cure for epilepsy by now.

Typing on a phone so apologies for the brevity, clarity issues. I think we need to cut spending in a big way and put it back.into the private sector. I can determine better how to spend the money (my money).

Monday, December 3, 2012 at 2:20 PM

veritaseequitas in Fightertown, USA said:

Disability - the new profession. And I am NOT referring to the people who truly need help.
You think its bad now? Wait until street drugs are legalized.

Monday, December 3, 2012 at 6:42 PM

Orf in Pittsburgh said:

I see many patients with drug dependency every week. A sizable number of them also have disability insurance. Some of these who say they cannot work are quite capable of doing something. But they think they get more money from the government than they would if they had a job. I would not put most of them in the category of disability.

Other such people are trying hard to stay clean and to keep a job. That is what I do for them and with a high success rate.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at 1:04 PM