As the American economy has moved away from manufacturing to information services and the economy limps along, not keeping up with the number of people who need jobs, the U.S. Social Security Disability program has boomed. This boom covers up the real numbers of people who would otherwise be on welfare or counted among the unemployed. NPR looks at several factors that made this happen: for example, disability is for people who can no longer perform heavy labor, and don't have the education or skills for other jobs.
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.
And disability payments shift the expense of maintaining people without jobs away from states and onto the federal government.
A person on welfare costs a state money. That same resident on disability doesn't cost the state a cent, because the federal government covers the entire bill for people on disability. So states can save money by shifting people from welfare to disability. And the Public Consulting Group is glad to help.
PCG is a private company that states pay to comb their welfare rolls and move as many people as possible onto disability. "What we're offering is to work to identify those folks who have the highest likelihood of meeting disability criteria," Pat Coakley, who runs PCG's Social Security Advocacy Management team, told me.
Other factors come into play, but the result is that 14 million Americans receive a disability check every month -and health care through Medicare. Learn more about the trend at NPR. Link