Had dinner the Thursday night before last with a group of disability scholars, educators, advocates, and writer and poet-activists with disabilities. Talk around the table touched on many things, but kept coming back around to this story on NPR's This American Life, Unfit for Work: The Startling Rise in Disability in America, by Chana Joffe-Walt. What's “startling” to Joffe-Walt isn't that there's been a rise in the number of disabled Americans, but that there's been a rise in the number of people with "disabilities" collecting disability benefits instead of going out and earning a paycheck.
It's an exasperating piece, exemplifying much of what's wrong with elite journalism and for that reason will probably earn Joffe-Walt all kinds of awards, rewards, and plaudits from her peers. The consensus among my dinner companions was that it ought to earn her a place in hell or at least some remedial time in their classrooms.
Naturally, considering their conditions, situations, experiences, and interests, they were furious at the many ways they felt Joffe-Walt had failed to address real and serious issues regarding disabilities and had implicitly maligned all people with disabilities as cheats and layabouts.
They were in agreement that Joffe-Walt is a complete ignoramus on the subject of disability and they had lots of recommendations for books and articles she should have read and scholars and activists she should have spoken with. But most of them were academics and academics live on the belief that a little reading and a little education can do wonders.
Joffe-Walt isn't ignorant about disabilities or people who have to live with them.
She's completely uninterested in them.
Unfit For Work isn't about disabilities. It's about "disability".
It's a money story. And a too familiar sort of money story. It's a your money story. And your money stories have one of two themes. How you are not making as much dough as you should be or How you are being cheated out of the dough you do make.
Guess which one this is.
For Joffe-Walt’s purposes, disability isn’t a condition or impairment that makes work and life a struggle for individuals. It’s a classification of taxpayer money being funneled to people who don’t deserve it.
The Right Wing media are loving this. Not only does it give credence to a lie they’ve been pushing, they can count on it to help fuel the angers and resentments they’ve been stoking among the faithful for decades. Since even before Reagan, the Right’s driving idea has been that the problem with America is other Americans. Those other Americans. Joffe-Walt’s story is of a piece with the narrative by which the Right tells itself horror stories of Welfare Queens, the 47 per cent, anchor babies, the food stamp President, Social Security recipients taking lavish vacations in Europe, teachers unions protecting and promoting incompetents, and almost daily dreamed up new nightmares about how they are living it up on our dime.
Joffe-Walt makes the proper sympathetic noises to make sure we know she isn’t heartless, but for all the attention and emphasis she gives it, you might not know from her story that there a people on disability who can’t walk, can’t get around without a wheelchair, can’t breathe without oxygen, can’t see, can’t hear, can’t roam far from a dialysis machine, can’t regulate their bodily functions, can’t plan their week beyond their next round of chemo or radiation, can’t hold themselves together emotionally without medication, can’t stand for more than a moment or make a move without pain, can’t lift, can’t bend, can’t work.
You might not get the sense that she has any sense that many of these people could work, would like to work, but can’t work because they need accommodations and training stingy employers refuse to provide and because they face hiring prejudices based on outdated assumptions and attitudes about the capabilities of the disabled.
None of this is Joffe-Walt’s concern. What concerns her is that there are people who she believes could work and should work but aren’t working because they don’t have to work because they’re collecting disability instead.
Grudgingly, Joffe-Walt acknowledges that some of these people might have been temporarily incapacitated by aches and pains and other lingering effects of illnesses, operations, and injuries you’d think (that is, Joffe-Walt plainly thinks) they’d have recovered from by now or learned to live with. But they aren’t disabled by Joffe-Walt’s lights and it’s only due to their ingenuity at scamming the system with the help of overly-sympathetic doctors, indifferent judges, lazy bureaucrats, cowardly politicians, and shyster lawyers that they’re collecting “disability.”
“I have back pain,” Joffe-Walt tells us. Well, so do I. Somehow I suspect it’s not quite as intense as the back pain of someone who broke their back falling off a scaffold or having a tractor roll over on them.
“My editor has a herniated disc, and he works harder than anyone I know.”
Good for him. And if his job is ever pulled out from under him what sort of work is going to do next?
Operate a backhoe?
Joffe-Walt apparently thinks that anyone with any pride or self-respect should take any sort of job that comes along, whatever it pays, even if it’s only minimum wage, rather than collect disability.
It doesn’t seem to have sunk in for her that some kinds of aches and pains that are inconvenient and annoying when you’re doing your job from an ergonomic chair bought by the company and you’re lifting nothing heavier all day than a cup of coffee brought to you by an intern are debilitating, incapacitating, disabling when you’re washing cars, stacking boxes, waiting tables, pushing a mop, or standing all day at a cash register.
“There must be millions of people with asthma and diabetes who go to work every day,” Joffe-Walt exclaims. Of course there are. People with conditions like asthma and diabetes and arthritis and emphysema and cancer and herniated discs do go to work every day, dealing with the pain and the weakness and the frustration as best they can until…they can’t.
But Joffe-Walt isn’t really that concerned with how someone’s health might decide whether or not they can work. She’s concerned, oh so very concerned, with the economic reasons someone might be tempted to go on disability.
People who leave the workforce and go on disability qualify for Medicare, the government health care program that also covers the elderly. They also get disability payments from the government of about $13,000 a year. This isn't great. But if your alternative is a minimum wage job that will pay you at most $15,000 a year, and probably does not include health insurance, disability may be a better option.
Of course it’s a better option. The Medicare qualification makes it far better, all by itself. Not many minimum wage jobs come with anything like adequate health insurance plans. But it’s also a better option because the minimum wage is set way too low. And it’s not just the money going into pocket that factors into people’s decisions. There’s transportation. Child care. Sick days---if you have asthma you may be as determined to work any job you can find as Joffe-Walt thinks you should be, but there are going to be days when you can’t breathe, when you will have to call in sick or ask to go home or to the doctor and guess what usually happens to minimum wage workers who ask for those simple considerations. There’s also the cold, hard economic fact that these jobs have a way of disappearing overnight and people living check to check need to be able to count on the checks coming every week. You have to wonder if Joffe-Walt ever worked a minimum wage job in her life.
Joffe-Walt is also concerned that going on disability is bad for the soul.
But, in most cases, going on disability means you will not work, you will not get a raise, you will not get whatever meaning people get from work…
Ok, clearly Joffe-Walt doesn’t understand what work is for most people. Meaning from work? Most people don’t get meaning from their work. They get a living, if they’re lucky. Sentimentalists and moralists and working people just trying to keep their own spirits up will talk about how work in itself is ennobling. But what is ennobling about working most jobs is doing the work despite its being the very opposite of ennobling---degrading, humiliating, disempowering, soul-sapping, mind- numbing, dream-crushing, hope-killing, and back-breaking, and on top of all that it doesn’t pay enough.
Beyond that, Joffe-Walt hasn’t noticed or bothered to notice that one of the reasons for the rise in disability claims is that the Baby Boomers are getting old and they’re starting to break down the way older workers have always tended to do, especially those who work physically demanding jobs, it’s just that there happens to be a lot of them breaking down all at once, just as fifty and sixty years ago there were a lot of children entering grade school all at once. And a great many people in their fifties and sixties have been thrown out of work by the recession and the reason they won’t be going off disability (until they’re sixty-six and can collect regular Social Security) isn’t their moral degradation but the simple fact that employers don’t want to hire old people, particularly old people who can’t “pull their weight.” They cost too much. Joffe-Walt calls disability a form of welfare when she’s not calling it a form of unemployment. (Both terms resonate with Joffe-Walt’s indignation, collecting welfare and unemployment benefits both being as morally suspect as collecting disability in her view. Again: disability and unemployment are earned benefits not charity. We pay for them ahead of time, hoping we will never have to collect, with our payroll taxes.) But for older workers it’s a form of early Social Security. I would like to ask Joffe-Walt why she thinks it’s such a terrible thing that someone leaves the workforce at sixty-four because of a bum knee rather than hobbling through until they’re sixty-six working as a greeter at Wal-Mart.
Here Joffe-Walt has put herself in the position of lecturing people who have worked since well before she was born on the moral uplift that comes from earning a paycheck.
But when you get right down to it, the real problem for people with disabilities and people who are on “disability” and everybody else who just needs to work is that the work isn’t there. One of Joffe-Walt’s sources, a former mill worker who went on disability after a heart attack and a bypass would have gladly gone back to work at the mill if the mill was still there.
Joffe-Walt’s reaction to this is to wax indignant that some bureaucrat advised her source to “suck all the benefits [he could] out of the system” as if that was the reason the mill closed and wouldn’t be reopening. The problem doesn’t seem to be, in her mind, that there are no jobs for fifty-six year old former mill workers with heart conditions. The problem, as she seems to see it, is that the system is functioning as if there are no jobs for fifty-six former mill workers with heart conditions. The real problem, as it exists outside Joffe-Walt’s head, is that people are trying to deal with a problem they can’t fix themselves. Mass unemployment across the country.
Joffe-Walt isn’t completely oblivious. She is aware that unemployment is a problem. But she has a solution. The unemployed just need to deal with it.
Somewhere around 30 years ago, the economy started changing in some fundamental ways. There are now millions of Americans who do not have the skills or education to make it in this country.
Ah. Structural unemployment. This gives the game away.
Everything’s fine. The system is functioning. There are just some people who are, well, useless, and if they aren’t going to take the trouble to make themselves useful, there’s nothing we can do for them. Our job is to accept and make the most of the new economic realities.
One of those realities is that even though corporations and the richest of the rich are piling up money at an obscene rate we can’t afford to take care of our own anymore.
Beneath Unfit for Work is the voice of the austerity fetishist, the initiate into the Pain Caucus.
Austerity is failing on a grand scale in Europe. It hasn’t created jobs. It’s wiping out more and more every day. It hasn’t solved the “debt crisis” or the “deficit crisis” or the “crisis of confidence” or whatever “crisis” the Austerity fetishists claim they’re solving. But the fetishists in Europe persist in inflictiing pain on the poor and the working and middle classes and the fetishists here, in Congress and the Media and, depending on the President’s mood from week to week, the White House keep talking up the need for more pain.
Economists---and not just Paul Krugman, although his warnings ought to be enough---keep pointing out that unemployment here isn’t structural. It’s mainly due to a lack of demand or as Charles Pierce, no economist, just a man with his eyes open and his head screwed on straight, says every chance he gets, "People got no jobs. They got no money.” Put people to work, stimulate the economy, the economists and the people with their heads screwed on straight advise.
Oh, no, we can’t do that, say the fetishists. That would cause all kinds of trouble we can’t really define at some date way in the future we can’t really pinpoint. What we have to do is cut more! We have to tighten our belts and make more sacrifices.
We meaning, of course, you. Us.
The not rich who can’t pay out of pocket for what democratic governments supposedly exist to provide.
Krugman has wondered about the Psychological Roots of Austerity Mania and why the facts of economic life as indentified by John Maynard Keynes won’t sink in on the austerity fetishists who are proving Keynes right every day. Krugman is inclined to think the fetishists are seduced by their own vanity in being thought “serious”.
I’m inclined to think they’re just cruel.
Tea Party types bellow and bluster openly about how they---those others---are a pack of thieves and swindlers, stealing our benefits, making us hardworking taxpayers pay their way. The more vulgar Right Wing corporatists like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan lecture endlessly about the moochers and the parasites, again those others who won’t work because liberals in government buy their votes with “free stuff”, using the money of virtuous and hardworking wealth-creators. But for both the Tea Party types and the corporatists the message is the same: They, those others, are what's wrong with America.
The austerity fetishists are more tactful. They don’t talk in terms of us and them. They are adept at the language of assumed virtue and their favorite pronoun is we and by its promiscuous use they fool themselves into thinking or, more likely, think they’re fooling the rest of us into thinking their only concern is the common good.
We need to do these things. We have to make the hard choices. We must accept the sacrifices and live with diminished expectations and a lower standard of living for our own good and the good of our children and grandchildren.
Again, of course, by we they mean you, as in the rest of us.
The simplest explanation is usually the best, and since the fetishists are mainly members of the owner class or willing and sycophantic servants and apologists for it, the simple explanation is that they see austerity as a method for creating their hearts’ desire, a desperate class of compliant and uncomplaining workers who will take whatever jobs they can get for whatever the bosses are willing to pay because what other choice do they have?
There’s much moral sniffing of snuff among the Wall Street and Washington elites about how we mustn’t create a culture of dependency. But what the owner class wants is a dependent class of workers, frightened employees who have to depend upon the charity, mercy, and forbearence of their bosses because they can’t depend on the responsible functioning of their government.
But I think there’s even more to it. They aren’t called the Pain Caucus for nothing. Pain isn’t an unfortunate side-effect of austerity. It’s the point. The fetishists want to make people hurt. For our, that is our as in us not them, own good. The intention is to enforce virtue (and to feel virtuous while enforcing it) but that’s a synonym for punish.
They intend to punish us, the mob, for having had the nerve to use government to try to live less desperate lives, for expecting more than we can pay cash on the barrelhead for---like good schools, safe streets, medical care for our children, security in our old age---for thinking that there ought to be more to life than working to make the rich richer, for not realizing we should be grateful that they, our betters, aren’t leaving us to starve and freeze even though they have the power and the right and even the moral obligation to do it, for acting as if we have earned some share in the wealth we’ve helped create with our labor, for demanding to be treated as if we are something more than costs to be controlled or resources to be exploited, for insisting we are human beings like them and that we matter.
For being right about that last one and thereby irritating their nearly atrophied consciences back into life.
My dinner companions were angry that Joffe-Walt didn’t write a very different story focusing on the real problems the disabled face in trying to join the workforce. But I’m not sure I’d want to read any story Joffe-Walt turned out on that subject. I’d be afraid that it would be cloyingly sentimental, all about the superhuman achievements of a few individuals who “succeeded” in overcoming their disabilities with the moral, Why can’t you other disabled people be more like these heroes?
She wouldn’t get far into it before she was wondering, sympathetically, if maybe as a society we are being too generous, if accommodation means coddling instead of helping, if the Americans With Disabilities Act puts too great a burden upon employers which costs the rest of us jobs, if it isn’t time we faced up to the fact we can’t afford all these “entitlements”, if it’s really worth the cost of taking care of our own.
And it’d be laced through and through with Joffe-Walt’s pity for the disabled, because pity is easy and easy to fake.
And it’s cheap.
My friend, colleague, and boss, the poet Steve Kuusisto, who is blind and who, incidentally, has a herniated disc like Joffe-Walt’s hard-working editor boss, was one of the hosts of that dinner. As you can imagine, he was less than indifferent about Unfit for Work. He’s written several posts on it. The one to start with is this one, Why NPR Doesn’t Understand Disability:
I am for instance a blind man with a graduate degree from the University of Iowa’s “Writer’s Workshop”. I teach at a major university. With a talking computer and a guide dog I can work productively. When my back aches from a herniated disc the university will provide me with a Herman Miller chair and pay for physical therapy. I have the same disability that keeps 70 per cent of the blind and visually impaired unemployed. My advantages? A combination of luck, education, and white collar privilege.
Here’s an interview the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein did with Joffe-Walt in which Klein does his usual too reasonable best to give Joffe-Walt her due while trying to get her to respond to critics of Unfit for Work, “I thought I knew what being disabled meant.”
Here’s an answering interview Brad Plummer did with Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration in which Pollack explains that Joffe-Walt still doesn’t know what disability means or how disability insurance works, What ‘This American Life’ missed on disability insurance. Kathy Ruffing, a Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, specializing in federal budget issues, has more along the same lines. at Off the Charts Blog, The State of Disability.
Dean Baker is succinct, Planet Money Misses the Boat on Social Security Disability:
…the explanation for this increase seems pretty clear -- the economy is down almost 9 million jobs from its trend growth path. People who would have otherwise been employed find themselves desperate for any means of support due to the inept economic policy that sank the economy. This is a simple explanation that doesn't require examining the moral turpitude of beneficiaries or evidence of corrupt or negligent administrators. Fix the economy and you would remove much of the burden on the program. It is also striking that the projections in the 2012 Trustees Report show the costs again falling below the level projected in 1996 once the unemployment rate gets back down to a more normal level.
And Paul Krugman continues to scratch his head over the President’s apparent eagerness to join the Pain Caucus, Desperately Seeking “Serious” Approval.