On Disability

by Jonah Goldberg

My column on disability insurance has generated some heated e-mail and Twitter traffic. The most intriguing complaints come from people who are in effect saying that, since they have serious disabilities, it’s outrageous for me to question anyone’s disability claim. I think most people can see the flaw in this thinking. In fact, I’m flummoxed as to why people with real disabilities wouldn’t be the ones clamoring the loudest to stamp out fraud. Maybe disability checks would be more generous if voters thought they were subsidizing fewer cheats? 

Another criticism amounts to an attempted “gotcha”: A lot of these payments are going to white residents of red states! You’re trying to take money from your own base! To which my response is, “Yeah, I know!” The idea that conservatives should somehow be in favor of both fraud and a dole for the able-bodied, so long as it’s going to white (alleged) Republican voters is beyond stupid. In some cases it strikes me as a kind of revealing projection — as if conservatives should think about welfare the same way at least some liberals do. A conservatism that champions — again, fraudulent — welfare for white people is no conservatism at all. 

A related criticism comes from Phillip Bump at The Atlantic Wire. In a post titled “The Right is Furious About How Much Disability the Right is Claiming” he writes:

Conservative columnists are newly outraged by Social Security data showing a rise in disability applications. But this isn’t Obama’s fault. In fact, it’s kind of theirs. 

He then proceeds to run a bunch of charts that, while at times interesting, don’t seem to prove his thesis. Having read the post I still don’t understand why this is “our” fault. Moreover, I never blamed Obama for any of this. I think it’s pretty clear from my column that I acknowledge this is a long-term trend. 

According to Bump, the growth in disabilities is simply a function of society getting older and older people are — wait for it! — disproportionately Republicans. In fact, he seems to say the rise in disabilities is entirely attributable to arthritis — though I suspect he didn’t mean to say that. 

Regardless, the aging of the workforce cannot come close to explaining the disability explosion. As I note in the column, the average age of recipients has been going down, even as people have become healthier and workplaces safer. 

Bump makes it sound as if Nicholas Eberstadt, one of the country’s most respected demographers, somehow didn’t think of this “they’re getting older” argument. 

If he read Eberstadt’s book, he’d know that. Heck, if he read his own website he’d have seen this item by Jordan Weissmann:

Are disabilities just becoming more common? According to economists such as MIT’s David Autor, the evidence says no. The workforce is indeed getting older, and thus more ailment prone. But Americans over 50, who make up most disability cases, report much better health today than in the 1980s. And demographers have found that the percentage of Americans older than 65 suffering from a chronic disability has fallen drastically since then. In the end, economists Mark Duggan and Scott Imberman estimate that, at most, the graying of America’s workers explained just 4 percent of the increase in the rate of disability program participation for women, and 15 percent for men, through 2004.

Weissmann’s conclusion strikes me as entirely right:

Moreover, that program, is headed for bankruptcy. As of last year, Social Security’s disability trust fund was on pace to run dry by 2016, which would lead to an automatic 21 percent benefit cut affecting all of the program’s participants, including the millions who truly can’t work because of their impairments. 

Like I said, even if we wanted a new welfare program for the struggling poor, this wouldn’t be the way to run it. 

And like I said, I am at a loss as to why anyone of good will would have a problem with trying to weed out fraud.  

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