From Welfare Queens to Disabled Deadbeats

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The New York Times

From Welfare Queens to Disabled Deadbeats

If you want to understand the trouble Republicans are in, one good place to start is with the obsession the right has lately developed with the rising disability rolls. The growing number of Americans receiving disability payments has, for many on the right, become a symbol of our economic and moral decay; we’re becoming a nation of malingerers.

As Jared Bernstein points out, there’s a factual problem here: a large part of the rise in the disability rolls reflects simple demographics, because aging baby boomers are a lot more likely to have real ailments than those same workers did when they were in their 20s and 30s. The Social Security Administration does a formal adjustment for this reality, and as Jared says, it looks like this:

It looks a lot less dramatic, doesn’t it?

And as for the rest of what’s going on, CBO — which also concludes (pdf) that a lot of it is demographics — adds this description of policy changes:

In 1984, lawmakers enacted the Disability Benefits Reform Act, which expanded the ways in which people could qualify for the DI program. That legislation, in addition to reversing several of the cost-containment measures enacted as part of the 1980 Social Security Disability Amendments, shifted the criteria for DI eligibility from a list of specific impairments to a more general consideration of a person’s medical condition and ability to work. The legislation allowed applicants to qualify for benefits on the basis of the combined effect of multiple medical conditions, each of which taken alone might not have met the criteria. It also allowed symptoms of mental illness and pain to be considered in assessing whether a person qualified for admission to the DI program, even in the absence of a clear-cut medical diagnosis.

So yes, there has been some liberalization of the criteria — if you have multiple interacting conditions or mental illness, you may qualify in ways you didn’t before — but that liberalization is pretty reasonable. It’s still quite hard to qualify for DI.

What strikes me, however, isn’t just the way the right is trying to turn a reasonable development into some kind of outrage; it’s the political tone-deafness.

I mean, when Reagan ranted about welfare queens driving Cadillacs, he was inventing a fake problem — but his rant resonated with angry white voters, who understood perfectly well who Reagan was targeting. But Americans on disability as moochers? That isn’t, as far as I can tell, an especially nonwhite group — and it’s a group that is surely as likely to elicit sympathy as disdain. There’s just no way it can serve the kind of political purpose the old welfare-kicking rhetoric used to perform.

The same goes, more broadly, for the whole nation of takers thing. First of all, a lot of the “taking” involves Social Security and Medicare. And even the growth in means-tested programs is largely accounted for by the Earned Income Tax Credit — which requires and rewards work — and the expansion of Medicaid/CHIP to cover more children. Again, not the greatest of political targets.

The point, I think, is that right-wing intellectuals and politicians live in a bubble in which denunciations of those bums on disability and those greedy children getting free health care are greeted with shouts of approval — but now have to deal with a country where the same remarks come across as greedy and heartless (because they are).

And I don’t think this is a problem that can be solved with a slight change in the rhetoric.

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman is professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University and a regular columnist for The New York Times. Krugman was the 2008 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics. He is the author of numerous books, including The Conscience of A Liberal, The Return of Depression Economics, and his most recent, End This Depression Now!.

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