The Corner

Safety-Netting Our Citizens to Death

The New York Times’ Nick Kristof — last seen decrying the use of private generators in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy — last weekend almost redeemed himself with a column that every liberal should read. It’s not perfect, of course, but it certainly grabs your attention from the opening paragraph:

THIS is what poverty sometimes looks like in America: parents here in Appalachian hill country pulling their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability.

Then he goes on to channel Rick Santorum:

This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire.

Some young people here don’t join the military (a traditional escape route for poor, rural Americans) because it’s easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments.

Antipoverty programs also discourage marriage: In a means-tested program like S.S.I., a woman raising a child may receive a bigger check if she refrains from marrying that hard-working guy she likes. Yet marriage is one of the best forces to blunt poverty. In married couple households only one child in 10 grows up in poverty, while almost half do in single-mother households.

If we’re going to reform a “safety net” that destroys lives and helps bankrupt our country, then we’re going to need at least some on the left to wake up to the reality of the system they helped create. But while Kristof’s attention on the abuse of S.S.I. is welcome, he’s barely scratching the surface of a system that seems almost perfectly created to shove formerly working poor and lower-middle-class Americans into a lifetime of dependency.

I live in rural, southern Tennessee, in a beautiful county that has a serious meth problem — and a serious disability problem not unlike the one Kristof describes. Curious to discover how and why so many of my neighbors end up “disabled,” over the last several months I’ve been talking to doctors and other professionals involved in the process (I really should turn this into a larger article).  

At the risk of over-simplifying the problem, here’s a typical way that a tough economy combines with our so-called “safety net” to produce a disability crisis: A high-school friend (we’ll call him “Rob”) has long worked in various blue-collar jobs in the area. In the 15 years since high school, he’s worked in manufacturing plants, on construction sites, and even — when times were particularly rough — mowed yards to help make ends meet. The work was hard, the pay wasn’t great, but he supported himself and made his child-support payments on time. He was a productive, respected citizen who took pride in his work and worked hard.

In early 2009, Rob was laid off from his latest job and immediately began receiving unemployment benefits. He’d received unemployment before and had always found another job, but this time the job market was more difficult. He looked for work, but he looked less and less diligently with each passing week. Benefits were extended — then extended again. While unemployed, he lived a far more sedate lifestyle and quickly began gaining weight — eating foods purchased with government assistance — and as he gained weight, his health deteriorated. His joints ached, his blood pressure rose, and he became extremely anxious.

Knowing friends on disability — and realizing that the benefits were roughly equal to the pay he received at his last job — he applied, claiming that his muscular-skeletal problems combined with his anxiety prevented him from working. Within months, he was approved, and he stopped any effort to look for work, knowing that if he found a job his benefits would cease. His sedate lifestyle continued, his health deteriorated even further, and — soon enough — he was truly “disabled” by any objective medical measure.  

In other words, we safety-netted Rob into chronic illness and long-term dependency.

Now, it’s true that at any point Rob could have taken concrete actions to change his path — and he bears moral responsibility for his failure to act — but it’s also true that our government has relentlessly incentivized every step of his deterioration, all in the name of compassion. Even worse, by providing such generous benefits with no meaningful strings attached, we’ve also essentially immunized him against the kind of assistance that he truly needs — the “tough love” that demands that a man do what he can to help himself through productive work.  

The result? Another statistic. Another father who is no longer a role model for his children. Another sadly shortened lifetime’s worth of money (some borrowed from China) paid to sustain a lifestyle not good enough to enjoy and not tough enough to leave.

It’s a national tragedy of our own making.

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