Disability: The New Welfare
They are not the first to notice this rapid rise, but they provide a lot of insight into how it has happened.
Essentially, it is too easy to get on disability, even on the basis of vague or ill-defined medical problems. When one looks at the vastly increased numbers in recent years, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that most of these people could work. But why do that, when you can draw a regular check?
In the 1990s, led by the state of Wisconsin, “welfare” (technically, AFDC) was reformed, and women on the program required to work. Welfare had long been stereotyped (with considerable justification) as a program that discouraged work and supported idleness. Thus highly effective work requirements were put into effect.
But while “welfare” had a bad reputation, few people had any desire to get tough on people who were “disabled.” It’s not your fault, after all, if you have a medical condition. Of course, there are medical conditions and there are “medical conditions.” There has been a marked shift over time in the composition of the “medical conditions” that allow people to be on disability. Conditions that can produce a hard diagnosis (heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease) have either remained constant or declined as a proportion of those on disability, while back pain and mental illness have radically increased. But the American people have not become less healthy over the past (say) 30 years.
Ironically, the growth of disability has vitiated another piece of Federal legislation: the Americans With Disabilities Act. That Act was based on the assumption that people with disabilities can work, especially if employers are required to make an “accommodation” for their disability. But the trend, unfortunately, has not been to get disabled people into the workforce, but to take them out of the workforce with government assistance.
This, like the growth of AFDC in the 60s, 70s and 80s, is another example of how good intentions can get out of hand and produce highly negative results. The graphs below tell the story.