When the housing bubble broke, taking with it the entire US economy, a number of people who thought they were middle class discovered they were poor. Worse, they also discovered the safety net was so porous that many of them ended up with no job, no health insurance and a rapidly dwindling unemployment income. Some of them pieced together consulting work, took part-time jobs or left the state to look for new employment. When the money ran out, they turned to Social Security’s disability insurance. That program for the physically and mentally impaired became the failsafe when income sources ran out. (“The Disabled American Worker,” by Brendan Greely, Bloomberg Businessweek, Dec. 19-25, 2016, pg. 24.)
A map showing disability applications by states shows that areas hardest hit were Appalachia and the south, parts of the country impacted by our international trade agreements with China and Mexico. (Ibid pg. 24.)
As writer Brendan Greely observes, the government’s failure to take meaningful aim at long-term unemployment has left an insurance program overloaded with people who can’t find work.
With an improving economy, some disability recipients could move off the rolls. But doing so poses risks, not only because one stands to lose a secure income stream, but also because leaving means losing health care coverage. (Ibid pg. 25) With a Congress determined to slash assistance programs further, those who could work have no incentive to withdraw and gamble with their future.
What’s happened to disability Insurance since the 2008 financial debacle is a wake up call for the Congress and the nation. As automation sucks air out of the labor market, chronic, long-term unemployment is inevitable. Elected leaders who see this problem through a political lens will take us nowhere. Voters who vent their anger at the ballot box won’t be of help, either.