Americans On Disability Play An Increasingly Important Role In The Economy

Audie Cornish talks with Chana Joffe-Walt of the Planet Money team about her series on federal disability benefits.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

All this week, we've been exploring the dramatic growth in the country's disability rolls. There are now 14 million people receiving benefits from the federal government because their disabilities make it hard for them to work. The series has generated a huge response from listeners, and we wanted to spend a few minutes now at the end of the series to talk with a reporter behind the idea, Chana Joffe-Walt of our Planet Money team. Chana, welcome.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: Hi.

CORNISH: So for those of us who haven't heard all of the stories this week, give us the Cliff's Notes version. After six months of reporting, what did you find?

JOFFE-WALT: So basically, I found disability programs that are run by the government that are playing an increasingly important role in our economy and are growing very quickly. The number of workers on disability has been about doubling every 15 years, and the fund for disabled workers is expected to run out of money in 2016. That's pretty soon, although the expectation is that Congress is going to act before that happens. But regardless, big picture, these are big programs. Spending on these programs is in the range of a quarter trillion dollars a year, which I was just surprised by to learn the scale here because you rarely hear disability programs getting talked about.

CORNISH: Right. You talked about this in your stories, that essentially these 14 million people on disability are hidden in plain sight because the vast majority of them don't work and that most aren't counted in the unemployment numbers.

JOFFE-WALT: And it's by design that the vast majority of them don't work. The programs are supposed to be for people who can't do what's called substantial gainful activity. But I do want to clarify something here. The programs do allow people to work a small amount, but if you start working in any substantial way, you get kicked off the program.

And actually, a lot of the letters that we got from people responding to the stories were people saying, I'm one of those 14 million people on disability and I want to work. But I get health insurance on disability and what job am I going to find that accommodates my disability, it also gives me health insurance. And there were people who talked about wanting to try out working, maybe see if they could do it, but they're really scared to do that because if they do, they stand to lose this guaranteed source of income, which is a terrible trade-off for people to have to face.

CORNISH: And, Chana, I mean, how hard is it for people who are on this program if they go off of it to get back on?

JOFFE-WALT: Well, it's definitely not easy. It can be a long arduous process to apply for disability the first time, the second time. And this is part of the problem with the programs growing. As more and more people apply for disability, there's a growing backlog of applications. It can take two years to move through an appeal for a disability claim. You hear stories of people dying while they're waiting. And while you're waiting, for the most part you can't work, so you're not making income. And then in the end, of course, there's no guarantee that you will get back on the program.

CORNISH: Now, Chana, as you mentioned, we got a ton of mail about this, and some of it was angry, from folks who say that this program, they say, has kept me alive, kept me in my home, gets me health insurance, and they really are fearful about the scrutiny of the program, that that will mean it'll go away.

JOFFE-WALT: Yeah. I want to say there is no question these programs play a really important role in the lives of lots of people. People with disabilities have been marginalized forever. So scrutiny of a program that supports millions of people with disabilities is a sensitive area to go into. To me, the fact that these programs do support so many Americans and growing numbers of Americans makes it all the more important to actually look at them and say, what are they doing, how are they designed, are they functioning well, what role are they playing?

You know, we didn't set out to do a story about how these programs should be eliminated. We weren't, you know, in search of some sort of massive fraud nor did we find any massive fraud. What we found were programs that were growing really quickly. And to understand why so many people are turning to disability, you really have to look at the larger context, you know, the context of an economy that is changing in really fundamental ways and has been for decades to a point where, right now, the economic landscape is really dismal for millions of workers, especially low-skilled workers.

And so these programs have been answering for and to some extent sort of masking these big problems in our economy. And in the absence of some really serious conversation about what do we do about all these big issues facing us, the disability programs have become a sort of default answer in the mean time. And so, really, the idea behind these stories was just to help inform what, hopefully, will be a much bigger conversation about these big issues.

CORNISH: That's Chana Joffe-Walt of our Planet Money team. Chana, thank you so much for speaking with me.

JOFFE-WALT: Thank you.

CORNISH: And if you want to share your thoughts on the disability programs, the role they're playing in our current economy, you can go to npr.org/money.

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