Disability isn’t so easy, even for the desperate

As much as I need to stop thinking about the Washington Post story on Social Security disability benefits reprinted in The Gazette on Sunday, I’m having trouble letting it go.

As the youngest child of elderly parents — my mother went to the doctor for concerns about menopause only to discover she was pregnant with me — I grew up on Social Security dependent benefits. So, in addition to my parents’ Social Security retirement checks, our family received a little more than $200 each month earmarked for me.

In order to better make ends meet, my father and mother worked odd jobs. Until bone cancer made it impossible, my mother took in sewing projects. My dad mowed lawns and did handyman or mechanic work when he could find it.

During high school when I competed for and earned a spot on an activity squad, the expenses created a strain. I walked into the kitchen the morning after making the announcement, the morning after my parents had told me how proud they were and Mom had made my favorite foods for a celebratory dinner, and found my father grimly sipping his morning coffee. My mother’s nose and eyes were bright red — clear signs of crying that I unfortunately inherited.

There was no big drama that morning. My parents did their best to brush off my questions. But I knew the added expenses had put us in a bind. Not yet old enough for a steady job, I began to search for work. I helped with morning milking at a dairy, baby-sat in the evenings and detailed teachers’ cars after school.

When I was old enough to get a job, I opted for the steady paycheck instead of school activities.

While my stint on Social Security was different — in many aspects easier than those who apply for disability benefits — it drove home something important that often gets forgotten in the erroneous caricatures of “welfare queens” and “disability kings”: No one gets rich off government entitlements.

The article from The Post gives readers a glimpse into some very real problems that have long plagued rural America. These are the pockets of the country where high unemployment and economic hardship have flourished. The same pockets where support for Donald Trump ran high on hopes he could save or bring back jobs. In many cases, these pockets are in states that still refuse to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, effectively forcing people like the man featured in the Post’s report to neglect or ignore injuries.

Still, glimpses are never full pictures.

The article documents the decision by one man to pursue an application for disability benefits, but stops once that decision is made. The reality is such an application is only the first step, and that most who apply never obtain benefits.

Even after all possible appeals are exhausted — a process that can take months — less than half of those who apply for disability benefits will receive them. The qualifications are strict — one or more medically determined physical or mental disabilities that will last for a year or more, or end in death. The disabilities must make it impossible for the person to “engage in substantial gainful activity,” which means a job that pays about $14,000 each year.

The Post also focuses on the semi-recent uptick in the number of people who do receive disability benefits, emphasizing the number of work-aged people who have joined the program. But as Stephen Goss, chief actuary for the Social Security Administration explained to Congress in the summer of 2014, these increases were predicted years ago. Population growth is one factor. Another is the influx of women into the workforce, making them eligible for disability insurance. Finally, baby boomers have aged into high-risk years.

When considering these demographic factors, analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows only a modest rise in the share of insured workers receiving benefits. And, those demographic indicators are beginning to subside. Growth in the number of disability beneficiaries has slowed to its lowest rate in 25 years — recent enrollments have been virtually flat.

Narratives like those in the Post’s article have been circulating for some time — providing misguided cover for politicians and advocacy groups who seek to degrade or defund these protections.

Following similar reporting by NPR, eight former Social Security Administration commissioners penned an open letter in 2013 to address these misconceptions. The commissioners noted that about one out of every five male beneficiaries and one out of every seven female beneficiaries die within five years of receiving benefits.

“Without Social Security or SSI, the alternatives for many beneficiaries are simply unthinkable,” the group wrote.

Because Mick Mulvaney, budget director for the Trump administration, is already attempting to separate disability benefits from the rest of Social Security (which Trump promised not to touch), it’s clear that our nation needs a comprehensive conversation.

Narratives are wonderful. They can personalize an experience, provide understanding to those outside of a situation. But there’s a danger in zooming so closely that anecdotal evidence is all that remains.

As much as my parents wanted me to have an active high school experience, there were not enough resources to support it. Likewise, as much as this Post narrative wanted to tell a story, there are not enough facts to support it.

This blog post by Lynda Waddington originally published on The Gazette website on April 3, 2017. Photo credit: Cliff Jette/The Gazette