In the U.S., people who are unable to achieve gainful employment due to a permanent disabling condition qualify for a government assistance program called Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Since 1990, costs for SSDI have gone from $20 billion to $128 billion, and the percentage of Americans ages 25 to 64 receiving SSDI has more than doubled from 2.3 percent to nearly 5 percent. The program may run out of money already by 2016, so something must be done.
The problems with SSDI, according to Schulzke, are numerous, but at their heart is the outdated foundation of the law. “The 1956 disability law, still in force, treats a disabled worker as an oxymoron. You are either a worker or you are disabled — not both.” This either/or thinking drives up costs by adding people to the roles of SSDI who could work part time. It also drives some people with permanent disabilities to continue working full-time and make themselves ineligible for benefits. (Read the article for a heart-wrenching example.)
This either/or thinking also drives many who are unemployed to seek SSDI benefits. For example, “When coal prices fall there is a surge of disability applications out of the Appalachian region, said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, adding that people with back ailments or low level depression tend to tough it out until economic desperation forces their hand. They lose work, they look around, they can’t find anything, and they get desperate. Eventually, they turn to disability.”
The world of work has changed dramatically since 1956, and the definition of disability used to apply the law has also changed since the SSDI law as enacted. The article argues that the U.S. needs both
1) an alternative transitional safety net for all displaced workers (not just workers with disabilities)
2) a “flexible program that catches disabled workers early, screens them better, and helps them stay in the workforce instead of dropping out.” In other words, SSDI needs to support employment rather than discourage employment for workers who have disabilities.
One of the hopes of the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990 and revised in 2008, was that the legislation would pave the way for more people with disabilities to engage in the workforce. But this hope has not been not realized, in part due to the current SSDI law.
What do you think? Should society give assistance to workers with disabilities? How? Please read Schulzke’s article, then let me know what you think.