Monday, March 25, 2013

Homeless People: Why Don't They Just Live In Their Summer Cottages?

As a journalist myself, I have a certain amount of sympathy for Chana Joffe-Wait, who wrote this article for NPR's Planet Money. The thing about being a journalist is, sooner or later your editor will order you to write on a topic you know nothing about; in such cases, the best you can do is quote some reliable sources and hope the end result isn't too egregious.

Anyway, after reading the article "Unfit for Work: The startling rise of disability in America," it's obvious that Joffe-Wait is lucky enough to know absolutely nothing about American-style poverty. And if all you knew about America's disability system came from this article, you'd assume that all 14 million "disabled" Americans are actually lazy slackers who could work if they wanted to, but chose instead to subsist on miserable poverty-level handouts 'cuz they're so lazy: 
People who leave the workforce and go on disability qualify for Medicare, the government health care program that also covers the elderly. They also get disability payments from the government of about $13,000 a year. This isn't great. But if your alternative is a minimum wage job that will pay you at most $15,000 a year, and probably does not include health insurance, disability may be a better option.

But going on disability means you will not work, you will not get a raise, you will not get whatever meaning people get from work. Going on disability means, assuming you rely only on those disability payments, you will be poor for the rest of your life. That's the deal. And it's a deal 14 million Americans have signed up for.
Really? All 14 million Americans chose that deal? None of them were forced into it via being too disabled to do anything better?

Maybe Joffe-Wait really does believe this. She was, by her own admission, absolutely shocked, shocked to discover that lots of jobs are far more physically demanding than "reporter for NPR":
One woman I met, Ethel Thomas, is on disability for back pain after working many years at the fish plant, and then as a nurse's aide. When I asked her what job she would have in her dream world, she told me she would be the woman at the Social Security office who weeds through disability applications. I figured she said this because she thought she'd be good at weeding out the cheaters. But that wasn't it. She said she wanted this job because it is the only job she's seen where you get to sit all day.

At first, I found this hard to believe. But then I started looking around town. There's the McDonald's, the fish plant, the truck repair shop. I went down a list of job openings -- Occupational Therapist, McDonald's, McDonald's, Truck Driver (heavy lifting), KFC, Registered Nurse, McDonald's.

Gee, who woulda thunk that Hale County, Alabama has less cushy jobs available than the East Coast megalopolis stretching from Boston down through Washington, DC?

Still, truth be told: there really are some lazy slackers out there, abusing the system. Surely there are some lazy sponges sucking up disability payments because they figure poverty plus unlimited free time is better than a middle-class existence where you sometimes have to work. I personally have known one or two such people, in my time. But I confess: My outrage level over such matters has dropped like a stone since last summer, when I moved to northern Virginia, suburb of the Imperial City, which has the highest concentration of welfare recipients in the world. 

Except local welfare recipients are called "federal contractors," and instead of poverty-level pittances they're given enough taxpayer money to ensure that my new home county has the highest median income in America. Take all the disability money the feds spent in the entire state of Alabama last year, and I doubt it will even cover the cost of one floor of that glossy high-rise Bechtel building, or corner office on the Northrop Grumman campus or whatever. And the disability folks aren't justifying their money by giving the military and paramilitary cops all sorts of shiny new kill-toys to use on people, either.

If the Cadillac-driving welfare queen of Ronald Reagan's speeches really existed, I'd have more respect for her perennially pregnant self than I do for the "gainfully employed" and outrageously wealthy consumers of tax money I see in northern Virginia every day. If I committed the maximum amount of welfare fraud feasible for an ordinary woman like me -- say, hide my car, savings account and all other assets from the government, then convince them I'm the disabled unemployed single mother of two dozen special-needs children -- my total lifetime fraud payout will still be less than what we spend to keep the military in Afghanistan for half a minute. (And my hypothetical welfare fraud wouldn't result in death for any innocent Afghan civilians, either.)

But, anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, such welfare queens are actually quite rare. Most people who limp along on subsistence-level disability payments would surely be ecstatic for the chance to give up their checks in exchange for an awesome (and physically untaxing) job writing for NPR. Or even for a dull-as-dishwater desk jockey job in some cubicle maze of a bureaucracy's office. Even being a chronically underemployed blogger/journo like me would be a vast improvement--no, I don't make much money, but I can make it sitting down and at least I have the possibility of making better money someday, which the chronically disabled do not.


Blogger Kevin Carson said...

A lot of libertarian critiques of welfare as a "plantation system," while true as far as they go, are marred by this kind of cluelessness. The welfare state really was created as a machine for managing the underclass and keeping it under control, and a genuinely *social* Kropotkinian safety would be better. That being said, given the kind of corporate-state capitalism we have now, it's more bearable with a welfare state than without it.

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it fairly fascinating that most "liberals" consider NPR's content to cater to their allegedly "bleeding heart" policies, but it appears that their particular brand of empathy does not extend to their fellow Americans. I bet if the writer was talking about illegal Mexicans then she would be singing an entirely different tune. Why is it that most self-ID's liberals hate other Americans not in their socio-political demographic, but love to give the country away to foreigners? That boggles my mind.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Abel said...

I got used to seeing wealth in Connecticut and New York City, but that was mostly inherited wealth, business wealth or celebrity wealth. But NoVa is different; the government-contractor suburbs here are all paid for with empire wealth. It really is nauseating.

3:20 PM  

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