Reader EC advises:
We interrupt this forum for a special bulletin: *****NPR HAS GONE ROGUE***** They just broadcast an hour-long episode of “This American Life,” which was a devastating critique of the disability program. Devastating. They called it the new default welfare program, pointing out that it costs the taxpayers vastly more than all other welfare programs put together. They went on and on and on and on and on about the utterly corrupt and dysfunctional character of the whole program and its explosive growth. Podcast version available Sunday at 7 p.m. Central Time here (Program 490: Trends with Benefits).
In the meantime, NPR has posted reporter Chana Joffe-Walt’s Web extra. Here is the opening of her take on Hale County, Alabama, the disability capital of the USA:
In Hale County, Alabama, 1 in 4 working-age adults is on disability. On the day government checks come in every month, banks stay open late, Main Street fills up with cars, and anybody looking to unload an old TV or armchair has a yard sale.
Sonny Ryan, a retired judge in town, didn’t hear disability cases in his courtroom. But the subject came up often. He described one exchange he had with a man who was on disability but looked healthy.
“Just out of curiosity, what is your disability?” the judge asked from the bench.
“I have high blood pressure,” the man said.
“So do I,” the judge said. “What else?”
“I have diabetes.”
“So do I.”
There’s no diagnosis called disability. You don’t go to the doctor and the doctor says, “We’ve run the tests and it looks like you have disability.” It’s squishy enough that you can end up with one person with high blood pressure who is labeled disabled and another who is not.
I talked to lots of people in Hale County who were on disability. Sometimes, the disability seemed unambiguous.
“I was in a 1990 Jeep Cherokee Laredo,” Dane Mitchell, a 23-year-old guy I met in a coffee shop, told me. “I flipped it both ways, flew 165 feet from the Jeep, going through 12 to 14,000 volts of electrical lines. Then I landed into a briar patch. I broke all five of my right toes, my right hip, seven of my vertebrae, shattering one, breaking a right rib, punctured my lung, and then I cracked my neck.”
Other stories seemed less clear. I sat with lots of women in Hale County who told me how their backs kept them up at night and made it hard for them to stand on the job. “I used to cry to try to work,” one woman told me. “It was so painful.”
People don’t seem to be faking this pain, but it gets confusing. I have back pain. My editor has a herniated disc, and he works harder than anyone I know. There must be millions of people with asthma and diabetes who go to work every day. Who gets to decide whether, say, back pain makes someone disabled?
As far as the federal government is concerned, you’re disabled if you have a medical condition that makes it impossible to work. In practice, it’s a judgment call made in doctors’ offices and courtrooms around the country. The health problems where there is most latitude for judgment — back pain, mental illness — are among the fastest growing causes of disability.
Please check out NPR’s Web Extra. I think we will also want to check out the report when it is posted tonight.