The Corner

A Disability Lawyer Responds

This is the most interesting and honest defense of the current system I’ve seen. It’s an e-mail from a lawyer:


I’ve read your work for years, always found it interesting and am one of those evil disability lawyers who go around convincing people to get sarcoidosis, copd and hepatitis C for the wonderful opportunity to get $1000/ mo from the government after surviving on nothing for 2.5 years waiting for a hearing, to give you an example of my last 3 hearings.  I obviously feel the need to add a little context to what disability really is and isn’t from someone on the front line of the issue.  Take it for what it’s worth, but here is what you need to understand in context:

– SSD beneficiaries are overwhelmingly poor, overwhelmingly uneducated and of low intelligence, and just in general people with marginal skills.  My typical client is over 50, has at most a GED if that, has worked heavy strenuous jobs with lots of lifting, carrying etc.  I’d say about 10% of them are completely illiterate, 25% marginally literate and some are actually mentally retarded.  I can count on one hand the people I have had over the years with a college degree. When these people develop a condition at age 52 and are unable to continue to do their heavy construction job, exactly what is a 52 year-old with a 8th grade education limited to sit-down work only who can barely read and write supposed to do?  Become newspaper columnists?  Oh, to make it even better, they cannot get any health care (in my state, you must be disabled to qualify for Medicaid) so whatever condition they have has festered and become far more serious since they had to stop working. 

– In case you haven’t noticed, the jobs available for low-skilled or marginally skilled workers have been cratering now for years.  Blame NAFTA, free trade, globalization, whatever, the fact is those jobs are fast disappearing or have already disappeared.  Oh, by the way, add in about 20 million low-skilled or marginally skilled legal and illegal immigrants to compete for those jobs  that are available.  So our 56 year-old guy with a bad back now has to compete with not only jobs he has no skills to perform, but for those few jobs he could perform, there are millions of younger people around to compete against. 

– SSD can be best understood as early retirement for poor sick people.  If you look at it that way, it is in fact quite equitable when the potential SS benefits expected to be paid are calculated.  I’ll give you an example from that NPR story.  The county in Alabama that has 25% of people on disability is over 50% black.  The life expectancy of a black male in that county is all of 66.7 years.  Currently, SS retirement age is 65.7 years roughly, meaning a black male in that county could work all his life from age 18, retire at regular age and have a 50% of drawing less than 8 months of benefits, if that, before he dies.  The white male life expectancy for the county you live in is 81.1 years.  At the average benefit of $1285/month, you will likely draw over $222,000.00 more in benefits over your lifetime than the black dude in the lazy Alabama county.  In fact the discrepancy is probably much higher than that, as odds are overwhelming that the guy in Alabama earned far less than you do and so his benefits would be lower and yours would be higher.  You can say that is only fair because you paid more taxes in, but even that doesn’t even things out when you count the 16.1 years you will get Medicare benefits to the 8 months he will plus the substantial upper income tax benefits from 401K’s.  

– SSD modulates in a very small way the substantial advantages social security retirement gives to upper income, primarily white, educated people.  If you are upper income, white and educated (notice I say AND not OR, the primary factor here being upper income more than race, poor whites are approaching black mortality rates in recent years) you have a number of advantages over poor, uneducated people.  You will live longer, a lot longer on average.  You will work longer, again a lot longer on average, because your work is much easier and you have many more transferrable skills, so if your job disappears, you can do something else.  So if a poor, black guy draws disability from age 55 to when he dies at age 64, you can say he’s lazy and  got all these government benefits that you don’t get, but in the big picture it is just shifting retirement to an earlier time to where he can actually see some of it.  Personally, I think that is fair; upper income, well educated people have done very well over the last half century, lower income, less educated people have not.  We can argue the why’s but you can’t really argue the whether.   

– If I ruled the world, I would have a different disability system; I think there are instances where it is too hard to get off disability even with medical improvement; children’s disability should certainly be changed; there should be ways to encourage work while on disability without fear of immediately losing benefits etc.  On the whole however, disability is something that slightly evens out the vast advantages the fortunate have in our society over the less fortunate.  I can tell you this without hesitation – there is no client I have ever gotten disability for who I would trade places with, ever. 

If you read this, I appreciate it, I realize it is long.  Anyway, that is some food for thought. 

[Name withheld]


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