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« "What Work Is" ---for the folks at NPR's Planet Money | Main | For their own good: The austerity temptation for Democrats »


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Ah, but Ms. Joffe-Wait's audition for the ranks of Very Serious People went very well indeed! She would get along famously with lots of right-wing (but right-thinking!) pundits. Brooks, Will, Richard Cohen . . . they'd all welcome her into the fold (well, if she weren't, you know, female they would). Life as morality play is the constant motif with these clowns.


If I remember correctly, when I used to listen to Planet Money before it became too annoying, Chana Joffe-Walt took a few months off from work to have a baby. Then came back to her job, which was still there for her. Does she understand that without luck, education, and white collar privilege (and the FMLA), that wouldn't have happened?

Rebecca Clayton

Thanks for all the links to responses to this article.

Chana Joffe-Walt lives in an upper-middle-class suburban world where health insurance, meaningful work, and food security are things "everybody" has. I'm not surprised that she's surprised about people opting for disability benefits over minimum-wage, benefit-free jobs.

But I live in rural West Virginia, where I've been teaching adult basic education classes, community college classes, and distance-ed college courses for the last 11 years, and I hear these sorts of comments from my coworkers and neighbors--complaining about all these food-stamp-cheatin', disability-fakin', crazy-check-drawin' layabouts. Strangely, most of the people complaining loudest draw government benefits themselves, or are employed by government agencies. They don't understand that they are part of Mr. Mitt's 47%.

I meet lots of people trying to better themselves with a GED or higher education. Most of them want to work, and hope to find a job through further education. Sometimes family obligations, transportation issues, or work schedule conflicts get in the way, and sometimes, they have developmental delays that leave them unable to achieve academically. What is supposed to happen to these people in Ms. Joffe-Walt's world? What if her fantasy about cute little Jahleel Duroc doesn't come true, and he can't read any better at 18 than he can at 10, even though he tries his hardest? If not disability, then what? Prison?

Oh, man. Sorry to go on about it. Thanks again for the interesting links.

Professor Fate

Very well written sir - and a sad but alas very true point about folks who are clueless about how folks who aren't white collar professionals live and the depressing meanness of the right wing that would rather have a million folks starve than one person scam the system (This does not apply to the well to do). I remember during a recent transit strike in New York a woman in the elevator made a comment about transit workers getting a pension at 60 in a very nasty way - i said a) do you want 65 year old people driving a bus and b) wouldn't a better question be why don't you have a pension rather than wanting theirs taken away?
it was a quiet if uncomfortable rest of the elevator ride. I don't normally say things like that but she seemed so full of hate for transit workers and the rest of the car were nodding their heads I felt i had to say something.
we live in depressing times when meanness is a civic viture.

El Jefe

Professor Fate,

The only way to keep meanness from being a civic virtue is to, well, practice civic virtue -- just like you did. I really do think the most important single sentence MLK ever uttered (borrowed, as he often did, from Gandhi, Jesus, Gautama, and a few other people along the line) was the one about what happens when good people do nothing. This life ain't for wimps, and telling people who have done something terribly wrong, even a "little" terrible wrong like saying what she said, is the difference between living in a functional society and a collection of frightened, animalized atoms.

Also, 75 points to Gryffindor for the "Great Race" reference. When it reaches my lower lip, somebody's going to hear about it....

Gypsy Howell

Thank you so much for for writing this Lance, and putting into words the rage and disgust I felt listening to the program. I was so infuriated at to her mean-spirited, condescending report that I had to turn it off part way through.

Gypsy Howell

Thank you so much for for writing this Lance, and putting into words the rage and disgust I felt listening to the program. I was so infuriated at to her mean-spirited, condescending report that I had to turn it off part way through.


Great essay, Lance. Great. Every time I wonder how NPR can shovel this crap I remember they gave us Cokie Roberts.

Kevin Wolf

What Joffe-Walt is reporting on hits very close to home for me (no details without spewing my life all over the internet). What an egregious example of "elite" reportage, of having no idea what one is talking about.

Whenever I read stuff like this I think of Dickens. How many quotes in, say, A Christmas Carol alone would tear this crappy report to bits? But then, Dickens had empathy, and (as others have commented) that is no longer a virtue.


What are you talking about? I heard the report. Listened from beginning to end. At no point did she say that the people she was talking to should be thrown off disability.

Who cares if right wing nut jobs will talk about this. I still wanted to know.

She has a long talk with a woman who is in obvious pain if she has to stand all day. She could obviously do office work. But there is no office work available so she is on disability. Her point was that that makes it an economic issue. At no point did she say or even imply that the women should therefore be forced to work at a job that causes her pain all day!

She talks to a man who is on disability not because he is too sick to work, but because his plant closed and no one would even consider hiring him because of his age. If the plant reopened tomorrow he'd go right back to work. That makes it an economic issue. At no point did she say or imply that therefore he should be denied benefits.

At no point did I think she was saying that there are no people too sick to work. She certainly never said that disabled people shouldn't be helped. You made up that point yourself.

The point she SAID she was making was that we are spending $260 billion every year for what is at least partially an economic problem. With that much money in play, shouldn't we at least know about it? Shouldn't we talk about the best way to spend that much money?

Sheeesh! Even in your post you make economic points. Yeah, if we were at full employment things would be different. Well, that sounds like a good reason to demand policies that try to get us to full employment instead of budget cuts. Not a reason hide facts about a program with 14 millions people in it!

Oh, I missed the part near the end of your post. This WAS a report about people who are disabled trying to get into the labor force. They didn't make it. We could do as Joffe-Walt said and talk about that, or we could pretend this is all really about something completely different.

I get angry too when right wing people tell everyone that they we should go back to the 19th century and be happy about it. But that is a bad reason to claim the report was about something it wasn't.


It sounds very much like the attitude of people who think everyone should work until they're 70, or until they drop, whichever comes first. They have no concept of what it takes to do the kind of work that doesn't involve sitting at a desk all day and twiddling their fingers on a keyboard. And then they go home tired.


You've written an excellent article, and I'll be sharing it all over once I've clicked to post. But your article does have one blind spot. I work as an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities (also called developmental disabilities, or mental retardation). People with ID comprise the largest percentage of unemployed adults (80%). My job is to help people with ID who have jobs pick up new skills, navigate the social landscape, and keep the jobs they want.

They would take issue with your disparagment of jobs as meaningful. They may be doing some of the most menial, back-breaking, routine jobs there are, but the people I work with love their jobs, and they love the opportunity to be part of the community.

My co-workers are tasked with finding jobs for other people with ID, and that task hasn't gotten any easier. The people we serve are competing for a job cleaning toilets at the Y with people who have Bachelor's degrees. (Literally. My co-worker talked to a manager, who accepted an application and explained there were 200 applications already in, most with higher education listed.)

The types of jobs the people we support can do are being filled with the overqualified, who hate those jobs, and rightly so. Our next best avenue is to try to carve out positions, so our clients can do one little task that cuts into everyone else's productivity. We've had a lot of luck with this in the past, but now employers will only hire people who can run the register, unload freight, help customers, and fill out closing paperwork. Very few of the people we work with have the intellectual capacity to do many of those things, and multitasking is difficult for them.

It's an excellent article. I just wanted to address an aspect of disability the article doesn't spend much time on.


Alice, I once worked at a place where the product we created was put into little 10-oz. bags which had to be labeled with the correct product name on them. Some enlightened someone before my time there had figured out that two people with ID would be capable of putting those labels onto the bags before the product (roasted coffee) went into them. I imagine (or maybe hope) there was some soul-searching about whether the company was exploiting those people by paying them minimum wage to do that 8 hours a day, but there's no way anyone with a high school education or more could have done it all day every day; they'd have had to be rotated out every couple of hours to do something else. Everyone in the company, even the office staff, was cross-trained on every other position, but no one was ever assigned to those two jobs but the two developmentally challenged folks.


I work with people who have Medicare as a profession, and anyone on Medicare under age 65 is on disability. From my 7 plus yrs experience with Medicare beneficiaries, I can attest that first, it is not easy to receive SSD, at least not in Ohio. Second, the people on SSD are not living high on the hog. They are often living on less than $1200 a month, have a lot of health issues, depression, pain management, etc. Many don't have cars and in Cleveland, that's a big handicap.

My beef with academics, politicians and pundits who deign to opine on the life of people on SS, Medicare and/or Disability is that they haven't a fking clue how meager the lives of so many of those who have Medicare. I'd like every one of them to live in a subsidized senior high rise without a car, using food stamps and living on 400 a month after they pay the rent, having to buy $50 worth of Rx and obtain transportation and pay their Medicare co-pays. Eff 'em all.


Oh, and anudder thing - let's address real taxpayer money wasted, i.e., military hardware we don't need, stacks of billions on flatbed trucks in Iraq, Wall Street & bank bailout...I could go on and on. SSD is s drop in the bucket.


To be fair, there is a growing population of academics who are very aware of how people on SS, Medicaid and/or Disability live. They are still very much in the minority, but their numbers are growing. I personally have had a few professors who have broken down actual poverty, and what it means, especially if you are old and/or disabled. As for the rest, they tend to be older, so I hope they will be replaced more and more with folks who are actually familiar with poverty.

As for the segment itself, I nearly drove off the road while listening to it. I am permanently disabled, and was diagnosed as such when I was in my early twenties (though had had the condition since childhood). The biggest problem with my disability, at least in social interactions, is that I look healthy. So I get the attitude the young woman had in the segment on a pretty regular basis. Lately I have been reading James Baldwin, and his line about ignorance of something being itself a crime ran through my head when I listened to the segment. Yes, the woman was completely ignorant of the Disabled world, and definitely ignorant of the lower class world, but ignorance is no freaking excuse. She is choosing to remain ignorant, and that ignorance propagated on a national radio program hurts people. And that is a crime.


I felt the NPR piece was very matter-of-fact.

It's true editing is subjective. But I think it explored the issue without much comment, and everyone is reading into it as they will. The republicans say "aha, look at all these layabouts! This represents all of America which is all like this one town!" The Democrats say "if the subject is anything related to Disability fraud, it's obviously a trojan horse; a well crafted rightist hit piece."

I think it basically just outlined the contours of the situation for those living in the gray area some might call fraud and some might call not. It explored contributing factors (of which the mill closing, the recession and the bureaucrat were akin) without passing judgment on what is The Big Problem Here and The Big Solution.

I'm not sure it was necessary to shoehorn those two things in there. Appropriate? Sure. But they didn't and that's also okay.

You have a point that the choice of the topic itself is classist and austerity focused: that this small pittance afforded the poor should be the subject of scrutiny and newsworthy, rather than the billions funneled into an increasingly concentrated set of hands.

But that case could be made of any media. Wealth at the top gets wasted on speculation and foreign bank accounts and many other goods that don't go back into the economy just now. The nature of capital is to concentrate wealth in a few small hands: the reason credit is so low-interest but wealth isn't is because there is a lot of money and it is at the top. But we could function with capital if we found ways to spend it - either through "painting the roses red" jobs or through governmental education in investing so we can pay on people with enough skills that they hit market value (lord knows private investors don't have an incentive to do it as the returns are too long term and general to make a mint. And parents can invest but again, wealth disparity).

Our overarching structure for addressing poverty (rather than discussion of minutia such as student testing, or whether SEIU will get to unionize a couple hundred more or less health care aides) - this is the great undiscussed news story of our country. I don't really remember This American Life ever tackling economics in a heavy way from a nontraditional perspective.

Planet money plays at being evenhanded, but at its core it has always held the moderate-libertarian bent inherent in economics education. To them there is one solution in the world: work hard and you'll make it - unless you don't in which case too bad, guess you didn't work hard enough to figure out the right way to work. Or I guess all the boats will rise in a couple hundred years. But for god's sake don't disturb the market, it's not worth risking stability to help a couple hundred million people (that's the core rightist position).

I guess what I'm saying is this story no more represents a particular failure of TAL, and I think we should judge it on its merits as a mainstream news piece, and how it compares to that. Save the condemnations of a plutocratic media for the entire media.

Anyway the NPR piece was journalism exploring accusations of disability fraud and the context of that and I think that is a valid topic of discussion. Exploring plain-as-day disability and the importance of the program for that was not within it's scope. I think perhaps the folks at NPR probably (too comfortably) assumed their audience would know it's usefulness for that without reminder. Either they would not, or their audience assumed other audience members would not, or it's an easy reaction.

The piece raises the big question of "okay, we have all these low-technical-skills workers in their late 40s, 50s, and early 60s who aren't in perfect shape to do a ton of physical labor. What do we do about this? Currently the way this is being dealt with is some of them get some payments through sometimes fudging a bit the disability system, most of them don't and so even if they should all be getting some social safety net support it's hit or miss and very inconsistent across the board as to who gets it."

I think it said "here is the situation" and left the problem and answer to us. I actually thought it was pretty subversive to traditional political narratives on both sides of extremist republican and moderate moderate Democrat. It demonstrated that to the extent there was anything that might even be called fraud going on, it was as you said, often a problem of jobs not being there.

I think people tried to fit that square-peg into the round-hole of the comfortable narratives they're used to. Having complex, honest, nuanced conversations is hard (and untenable in our political environment where everyone plays to win the argmuent, not to be correct). A much more understandable way to process this piece is as your typical "the problem is we have a bunch of fakers! That's right! Social services is a big old joke full of fakers surviving on your cash!" Which is how the right processed it and the left processed it. Perhaps because we're so defensive.

I felt that radio show was a fantastic resource with which to start an open across-the-aisle political discussion about economic opportunity, as well as how social services can best and most usefully play a role in that. I think it was a resource squandered by both sides of the political aisle. There was a fantastic piece in the NYTimes lately about the disparity in college aid funding between high schoolers and continuing education students. The political web's discussion of this piece could have focused on that, for example, as a means of developing our workforce instead of being scandalized and breaking out the talking points.

It is true that rapid industrialization destroys a lot of the value of low-skilled labor, and that people are being asked to develop new, more valuable skills too fast. There is a serious question of how to deal with that. One way which is undoubtedly valuable to society is to provide people with skills. I'd say technical and healthcare skills (fields with negative employment in this country) are skills that would be consistently valuable in both a plutocracy and a sane society without unneeded scarcity.

Again, fantastic piece, but I just think especially the latter half is a good statement on the whole media, and finds as much application with this piece of interesting, not bad journalism as the rest of the political sphere.

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