A Painful Portrait of Disability in America

by David French

Late last month the Washington Post’s Terrence McCoy wrote a beautiful, painful piece about one man’s descent into disability. Yes, McCoy included the shocking statistics — like the fact that America now spends more on disability than the “combined total for food stamps, welfare, housing subsidies and unemployment assistance.” — but he centers it around the story of a man who’s struggling, in pain, but likely still able to work. In fact, he looks for jobs, believes he can be of value, but it’s hard for him to find anything at the level of pay he thinks he needs. 

Unlike many who write about disability, McCoy chose exactly the right kind of person to profile. Those who defend the program tend to point to those who are unquestionably disabled and demand to know why a heartless nation would want to cast them aside. Those who hate the program can easily enough not only point to outright frauds but also to an entire legal and medical industry that surrounds and thrives off of federal disability programs.

While we should obviously police fraud, I’m more concerned about the effect of the program on men like Desmond Spencer, the person McCoy profiles. Life is hard for him. Very hard. He’s done perhaps more than most to look for work but not all he can. He hurts more than most from a life of manual labor, but not so much that he can’t still do hard work. He suffers from stress and anxiety, but he’s still functional and a leader in his household. Yet all around him are men and women on disability — people who tell him to stop fighting it, to call the social security office, and start contributing that steady government income to the family.

In the movie “The Shawshank Redemption,” Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) says, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living, or get busy dying.” For all too many people, the choice to take that disability check is the choice to get busy dying. They disappear from the work force (they’re not counted among the unemployed), they tend to stay unemployed, and they often dissolve into the medicinal haze of drugs prescribed to treat their various symptoms. Ask a critical care doctor in a rural county about disability, and the chances are he’ll regale you with story after story of men and women who are in the midst of a slow, sad fade from life. 

The core of the American disability crisis is represented in the hard cases, not the easy frauds. A man used to have no choice. He had to keep at it, to look for work where he could find it. Now we give him options — the painful grind or a simpler path, one that promises a degree of stability in troubled times. All too many are choosing that simpler path. Perhaps that’s a choice that shouldn’t be so easy to make. 

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