I found that the number of kids on a program called Supplemental Security Income -- a program for children and adults who are both poor and disabled -- is almost seven times larger than it was 30 years ago. Jahleel Duroc pictured above is gap-toothed, 10 and vibrating with enthusiasm. He's excited to talk to someone new, excited to show me his map of his neighborhood in the Bronx. He's disabled in the eyes of the government because he has a learning disability. When you are an adult applying for disability you have to prove you cannot function in a "work-like setting.
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Two-thirds of all kids on the program today have been diagnosed with mental or intellectual problems. Jahleel is a kid you can imagine doing very well for himself. He is delayed. But given the right circumstances and support, it's easy to believe that over the course of his schooling Jahleel could catch up.
Let's imagine that happens. Jahleel starts doing better in school, overcomes some of his disabilities. He doesn't need the disability program anymore. That would seem to be great for everyone, except for one thing: It would threaten his family's livelihood. Jahleel's mom wants him to do well in school.
That is absolutely clear. But her livelihood depends on Jahleel struggling in school. This tension only increases as kids get older. One mother told me her teenage son wanted to work, but she didn't want him to get a job because if he did, the family would lose its disability check. I haven't taken a survey or anything, but I'm guessing a large majority of Americans would be in favor of some form of government support for disabled children living in poverty.
We would have a hard time agreeing on exactly how we want to offer support, but I think there are some basic things we'd all agree on. Kids should be encouraged to go to school. Kids should want to do well in school.
Parents should want their kids to do well in school. Kids should be confident their parents can provide for them regardless of how they do in school. Kids should become more and more independent as they grow older and hopefully be able to support themselves at around age A federal program for disabled people was first proposed in the s.
Even then, a Social Security actuary was worried. The cost of the program could be higher than "anything that can be forecast.
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The actuary's warning gets at a central tension in a much bigger debate: What should we, as a country, do for people who aren't making it? Americans want to be generous. But Americans don't want to be chumps. The first key pieces of the modern safety net were created in the s, under Franklin Roosevelt. The first federal disability program was created in the '50s. A few years later, Lyndon Johnson pushed to expand the federal safety net further. In the '80s, Ronald Reagan argued that a robust economy would do more to eliminate poverty than any federal program.
When Reagan used the term "welfare queen," it was clear where he stood. He didn't want to be a chump. Bill Clinton tried to appease both sides. He expanded many programs for the working poor, but he also promised to "end welfare as we know it" -- to nudge people off of public assistance, give them some job training, and force them to make it on their own.
History has judged Clinton's welfare reform a big success. But when you include disability in the story of welfare reform, the picture looks more ambiguous. Part of Clinton's welfare reform plan pushed states to get people on welfare into jobs, partly by making states pay a much larger share of welfare costs. The incentive seemed to work; the welfare rolls shrank.
But not everyone who left welfare went to work. A person on welfare costs a state money. That same resident on disability doesn't cost the state a cent, because the federal government covers the entire bill for people on disability. So states can save money by shifting people from welfare to disability.
And the Public Consulting Group is glad to help.
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PCG is a private company that states pay to comb their welfare rolls and move as many people as possible onto disability. The company has an office in eastern Washington state that's basically a call center, full of headsetted women in cubicles who make calls all day long to potentially disabled Americans, trying to help them discover and document their disabilities:.
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The PCG agents help the potentially disabled fill out the Social Security disability application over the phone. And by help, I mean the agents actually do the filling out. When the potentially disabled don't have the right medical documentation to prove a disability, the agents at PCG help them get it. They call doctors' offices; they get records faxed. If the right medical records do not exist, PCG sets up doctors' appointments and calls applicants the day before to remind them of those appointments.
PCG also works very, very hard to make the people who work at the Social Security happy. Whenever the company wins a new contract, Coakley will personally introduce himself at the local Social Security Administration office, and see how he can make things as easy as possible for the administrators there. There's a reason PCG goes to all this trouble. The company gets paid by the state every time it moves someone off of welfare and onto disability.
For Missouri, that's a deal -- every time someone goes on disability, it means Missouri no longer has to send them cash payments every month. For the nation as a whole, it means one more person added to the disability rolls. In the past few decades, an entire disability-industrial complex has emerged.
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It has just one goal: Push more people onto disability. And, sometimes, it seems like the government is outmatched. This is especially true in the legal system. Daytime TV in many places is full of ads from lawyers who promise to fight the government and win the disability benefits you deserve. There are tons of YouTube videos about getting disability -- one lawyer, one webcam. The standard form is a let's-get-real chat about how to win this thing.
There is one man who takes much of the credit for this industry: Charles Binder. Binder, and the lawyers who followed him, changed that. When he started in , Binder represented fewer than 50 clients. Last year, his firm represented 30, people. Thirty thousand people who were denied disability appealed with the help of Charles Binder's firm.
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In one year. The way Binder tells it, he's is a guy helping desperate people get the support they deserve. He is a cowboy-hatted Lone Ranger going to court to fight the good fight for the everyman. Who is making the case for the other side? Who is defending the government's decision to deny disability?
There is no government lawyer on the other side of the room. The Social Security Administration says disability hearings were never meant to be adversarial. In these courtrooms, the judges are employees of Social Security. So the judges are supposed to both represent the government and make a fair and objective determination.
But the judges themselves say this role can be difficult. Judge Randy Frye, who hears disability cases in North Carolina, told me he often finds himself glancing to where he imagines there should be a chair for the government attorney, as there would be in a normal case. Why does the government think this case should not be reversed? 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.
Politicians pay lip service to this problem during election cycles, but American leaders have not sat down and come up with a comprehensive plan. In the meantime, federal disability programs became our extremely expensive default plan. People at the Social Security Administration, which runs the federal disability programs, say we cannot afford this. The reserves in the disability insurance program are on track to run out in , Steve Goss, the chief actuary at Social Security, told me.
Goss is confident that Congress will act to keep disability payments flowing, probably by taking money from the Social Security retirement fund.