A complex of complexing proportions

So this last week, This American Life had a fascinating episode about the rapid (and seemingly unexplainable) rate at which people are joining the ranks of those who collect disability benefits.  It's worth the 50 minutes to listen, but I'll give you the highlights.  Chana Joffe-Walt has made this story her life the past 6 months, trying to get to the bottom of this situation.  She visited a county in Alabama where nearly 1 in 4 citizens collect disability benefits, to the point that the entire economy practically revolves around when the checks come in.  Citizens had their theories about why the number was so high, from people "faking it" to bad lifestyle choices, etc. 

My favorite line is when she said, "Disability is basicly a made-up concept.  There's no diagnosis called disability...  You can end up with one person with high blood pressure who is labeled 'disabled' and another who is labeled 'judge'.  When it comes down to it, all disability is the label we as a society give people when, we hear their story, decide that they've suffered enough." 

But what she realized in the proces of her interviews, it really came down to a huge part of the problem being that the economy in rural Alabama isn't set up for jobs where people can even sit down to work.  So basicly, you get a qualifying diagnosis simply because there aren't any jobs you can do if you have any real degree of back pain, etc.  People talk all the time about manufacturing jobs going overseas, and to that extent, high volumes of former industrial workers are further collateral damage of that movement. 

Believe it or not, that was the least disturbing part of the episode.  What I found much more disturbing is that if you are turned down for disability benefits, you can appeal and have an attorney represent you in the appeals hearing.  The government however, has NO ONE representing them in the hearings.  As the episode made the obvious metaphor, if you were trying to sue a private company for $250,000 (estimated lifetime disability benefit), you bet your legal briefs there would be an attorney representing that company!  Not only does this setup increase the likelihood of a claimant getting approved for benefits from about 30% to 75%, the system has made it so easy that social security pays the claimant's attorney directly so that you don't have to "feel" paying for an attorney. 

Now onto the REALLY disturbing part.  There are companies who contract with states to (and it's hard to word this so it doesn't sound so cold) basically get people off the states' welfare rolls by moving them over to the federal disability rolls.  Every person who these companies can "qualify" for disability, the states pay a flat comission to the company.  And they are VERY successful at doing this.  As Chana Joffe-Walt pointed out, if the same level of customer service that these companies use toward their "candidates" were applied by airlines and health insurance companies, to the general public, the world would be a much happier place. 

The downside of all of this, is you are basicly creating an ever-growing population of people who are now in statistical "limbo" because they are on disability.  They are not counted as "unemployed" because they aren't looking for jobs, seemingly because the evolution of the US economy has made poor education a disability.  This is only compounding the problem of an increasing retired population who are drawing social security benefits.  

One of the biggest concepts from the book, "When Healing Hurts" by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert is that people who are "poor" are not merely so because of material means, but because of a disconnection with the rest of society due to having no sense of purpose.  It seems to me there is this proliferation of people accepting a disability status when in reality they can contribute to society in a way that benefits them as individuals tenfold to how it benefits society.

It takes leadership, vision, courage and a concerted effort to find a solution to a problem this large and complex, but my thought is this:  If we agreed that $260 billion a year spent on disability seems like a rediculously high number, and cumulatively said let's re-commit those dollars into moving people from disability back to the ranks of the employed, whatever that takes, wouldn't we be solving many problems at the same time?