Should the Government Support or Discourage Employment?

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The March 10, 2013, Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah) features an insightful article on disability, disability benefits, and employment, “The awkward cashier: How federal disability policy mangles its mission” by Eric Schulzke. Here are a few highlights:

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The problems with SSDI, according to Schulzke, are numerous, but at their heart is the outdated foundation of the law.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.

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I've been reflecting on work lately and reading Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller. In it he describes the importance of work in our lives and in the bigger picture of God's world. It is part of the cultural mandate and one of the ways we join God's creative and redemptive work in the world. It provides us with a sense of meaning and purpose--though not ultimate meaning and purpose. Our public policies should make it easier for people with disabilities to find ways to use thier gifts and passions to do meaningful work too.

Dr. David Miller, Director of the Princeton University Faith and Work Initiative (web site: princeton.edu/faithandwork), has titled a principle part of his work the Avadah Institute. He chose the name because while earning his doctorate in theology (on top of his doctorate in business) he learned that the Hebrew word sometimes translated as "praise" is also the word used in other contexts for "labor" which is also sometimes translated as "service" -- as in, "for me and my household we will serve the Lord." We are created for praise and we are created for work. When the two become integrated we call it "service." When we deprive individuals of an opportunity to work (in whatever way they are able) we rob them of their dignity and their creation calling.

After being a physical therapist for 12 years, I've seen the upside and the downside to SSDI.  There have been many patients I have worked with that have made me say, "Thank the Lord for SSDI".  These persons typically have been severely injured in an accident and are truly incapable of performing 99.9% of jobs.  On the other hand, I have run across many patients who are on SSDI and appear to me as someone who could be gainfully employed in some manner.  From my point of view, the major issue is that the SSDI system rewards a person for not working.  Once you have it, there is no external incentive to find a job.  Even if a person on SSDI tries to find a job, they are often turned down because potential employers see the physical/temporal accomodations they would need to make as too costly or unproductive.  In my mind, two things would need to occur for positive change to happen.  First, change the SSDI system to reward beneficiaries for finding some type of employment.  Second, provide employers with assistance or some type of incentive to hire workers with disabilities.

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Mike, yes, I think that's exactly the point of the article. SSDI does help many people, but many factors stand in the way of it being an even better law such as these:

1. The law itself discourages people who could be employed, at least part time, because the law prohibits them from working much if they get SSDI.

2. As you point out, many employers won't consider applicants who have disabilities because they fear cost for accommodations and higher health care costs, and the employers can't imagine how the applicant could do the job. Yet, costs have been shown not to go up much for employers who do hire people with disabilities, and many people with disabilities have found creative ways to get things done that us temporarily able bodied people can't imagine.

So both the law and our attitudes need to change.