The Washington Post's War on Disability Continues

June 05, 2017

At a time when an ever larger share of national income is going to the richest one percent, and large segments of the working class population are seeing rising mortality rates, the Washington Post naturally turns to the country’s most pressing problem: the number of people receiving disability payments from the government.

Its second piece on the topic profiled a family with multiple generations receiving disability benefits. It seemed to go out of its way to include every possible negative aspect of their lives in order to give an unfavorable view of the family and leave readers with the impression that the country has a serious problem of families who do nothing but collect disability checks generation after generation.

The piece begins with a horrible story of young children playing with a puppy and then accidentally dropping it to the floor. They originally think the puppy was killed from the drop, but apparently it was only stunned and managed to survive. Then we get the story of the mother telling the kids to grab sodas to bring to a Sunday morning church service.

We then get the poetic description of the rural Missouri countryside where this family lives:

“She saw that gravel road turn into another and another. She saw trailers, dirt-battered and deteriorating. She saw land as flat as it was empty, land that migrant workers traveled hundreds of miles to cultivate, reaping both that year’s watermelon harvest and jobs that few in the community were willing to do.”

So we thankfully have people who are prepared to do the work that needs to be done, but we have to bring them in from other countries since these people who live there are too lazy.

And we are told of the mother who is the focus of the piece:

“She took the family to McDonald’s because they liked it, even though she knew they couldn’t afford to eat out. She went through more pain pills than she needed, and every few weeks, when those pills ran low, like today, she returned to the doctor for more.”

It would be interesting to know how the Post determined that this woman took more pain pills than she needed. That would seem to be a medical judgement which would require someone with medical expertise examining her.

There are a couple of points worth keeping in mind when reading this article. First, the United States ranks near the bottom of wealthy countries when it comes to the share of GDP that goes to disability programs. It also ranks near the bottom in the share of our working-age population that is employed. This would seem to indicate that it is not the generosity of our disability programs that is keeping people from working.

It is also worth noting that we know from research of many ways to improve the life chances, including employment rates, of children born into poverty. Good prenatal care and nutrition following birth have strong positive effects. This would mean ramping up programs like the Women, Infant, and Children’s Nutrition Program and food stamps. We know that quality early childhood education also matters a great deal as does access to health care through programs like Medicaid.

Having a parent in prison is also bad news, so mass incarceration is not going to help the children of people on disability have rewarding lives. Also, good family planning is a big help, so that women do not have unwanted children.

So there are many ways in which we could look to reduce the number of children who grow up poor and remain dependent on government programs throughout their lives. Unfortunately, the current direction of policy seems to be going in the opposite direction. We can always reduce the number of people getting disability by cutting benefits, but that will likely make the lives of these people even worse.

The obvious next segment in this series would have a Post reporter going to Germany or the Netherlands or some of the other countries that manages to have a larger percentage of their population working even though they have considerably more generous disability systems. The article can tell readers how they manage to structure their programs so that everyone doesn’t quit their jobs and fake disability so that they can live off the government. For some reason, I don’t think this is where the Post series is going.  

See also the Center for American Progress’ discussion of this article.


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