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All this week, we've been talking about the growth in our nation's disability programs. We have explored some of the reasons for that growth: an aging workforce, off-shoring of jobs, the recession and a growing skills gap. As a result, millions of American workers are turning to disability.
But we're going to focus now on another group that's increasingly turning to disability but for very different reasons. They're not workers at all. They're kids. The number of children on the government program for poor and disabled families is now five times what it was 25 years ago. Here's Chana Joffe-Walt with our Planet Money team.
CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: It can be hard to figure out the right in with a 10-year-old. So when I met Jahleel, I asked a bunch of - OK, they were boring questions. Hi. What's your name?
JAHLEEL JOHNSON KING DUROC: Jahleel.
JOFFE-WALT: Jahleel, how are you doing?
JAHLEEL: Jahleel Johnson King Duroc.
JOFFE-WALT: I asked his favorite food, favorite sports team. And then Jahleel did something kind of amazing. He just took over. He said, when is this interview are going to start? When are you going to ask me the real questions? What were you expecting me to ask you?
JAHLEEL: What borough I live on.
JOFFE-WALT: What borough do you live on?
JAHLEEL: In the Bronx. I show you. I live right here in the Bronx. Bronx in...
JOFFE-WALT: Jahleel walked me through illustrated maps of New York City he made in school that day. This kid is gap-toothed and vibrating with enthusiasm. Even things that aren't easy for Jahleel are exciting. He has a learning disability, but the way Jahleel talks about school...
JAHLEEL: My favorite periods are math and science and art and lunch and recess and snack and (unintelligible) and ELA and social studies and writing are my favorite.
JOFFE-WALT: That sounds like everything.
JAHLEEL: Those are my favorite periods. I like school. School my favorite thing to go to.
Jahleel's mom gets about $700 a month for his disability. The idea is if you have a son with a disability, you may have to work less to help the child out, and that child is likely to be more expensive. When you're an adult applying for disability you have to prove you can't function in a work-like setting. When you're a kid, a disability can include diagnoses get in the way of progress in school, things like ADHD, behavioral problems, mental illness. Two-thirds of the children on the program today are on it for mental or intellectual disabilities.
JOFFE-WALT: Jahleel is delayed in school. He needs lots of personal attention in things like math and reading. But he works hard. School is his favorite thing to go to. And the hope is with the right help he can do very well for himself. But if Jahleel does well in school, Social Security looks at that when they're determining eligibility for the monthly disability check. And Jahleel's family survives primarily off that disability check. Here's his mom, Nujima King. She's got two other kids and she's not working.
NUJIMA KING: Right now the money that I'm receiving for him is - it's extremely helpful.
JOFFE-WALT: So you don't have any other income other than the disability right now?
KING: Just disability and a little bit of savings.
JOFFE-WALT: Nujima wants Jahleel to do well in school. That's absolutely clear. But economist Richard Burkhauser from Cornell University says the incentives built into the program are working against that desire.
RICHARD BURKHAUSER: What we have is a program in which the benefits to the family are dependent on these kids continuing to be labeled as disabled all the way through the age 18.
JOFFE-WALT: To get on the program for children, you have to be from a poor family. And the money is hugely helpful to families living in poverty whose children have expensive needs. But Burkhauser says you don't want to put families in a situation where if their kids are successful this could happen.
BURKHAUSER: Their family is no longer eligible for SSI disability benefits. That is not a good thing. You clearly have a disconnect between what we'd all like these kids to do, namely progress in school, and the problem that that poses for the family's short-term economic well being.
JOFFE-WALT: There are lots and lots of poor families in exactly the same impossible situation, lots of mothers who, like a woman named Derinda Cruz, find themselves advocating something that seems completely counterintuitive for any parent. Derinda has told her 18-year-old son not to work because it'll get in the way of the disability check.
DERINDA CRUZ: And he say he want to work. He tell me everyday he want to go to work.
JOFFE-WALT: But you don't want that. You want him to not mess up the disability application.
CRUZ: Not right now.
JOFFE-WALT: Many of the children on the disability program have conditions where they will never be able to live independently, get jobs, make more money over time. But the number who stay on the program when they become adults is surprisingly high. Two-thirds who were on disability when they were children stay on disability when they become grownups. And as an adult you only qualify for disability if you show you can't work.
TALIYAH MCFADDEN: I'm kind of scared to work.
JOFFE-WALT: You're scared to work.
MCFADDEN: Yeah, because if I work, they'll go down on my check.
JOFFE-WALT: Taliyah McFadden is 27 years old. She's been on the disability program most of her life. She suffers from anxiety and depression. When she was 17, she tried to kill herself. The one time Taliyah had a very part-time job tutoring, Social Security saw she was making some income and they reduced her check. Taliyah freaked out when this happened. She quit her job. She says her symptoms come and go. She's not confident she could hold down a full-time job.
So she doesn't want to do anything that can threaten a dependable, secure monthly check. That's incredibly valuable to her, although when she talks about her experience working as a tutor, it sounds like that was pretty valuable too.
MCFADDEN: Most of my students said I trust you. And, you know, and I felt like - I felt appreciated, you know? Sometimes the parents just say that the kid wouldn't stop talking about me, you know, so...
JOFFE-WALT: So that must have been hard to give that up.
MCFADDEN: Yeah, because it kind of gave me a sense of wanting to be and wanting to live.
JOFFE-WALT: It gave you a sense of wanting to be and wanting to live?
MCFADDEN: Yeah, because, like, I just feel like I don't belong, like I'm not helping to make things better.
JOFFE-WALT: The idea that we should offer support to disabled kids living in poverty does not seem like a hugely controversial notion. The question is how to provide that support. And lots of people - including people at the Social Security Administration - are trying to figure out an answer. How do you design a program that encourages kids to do well in school and, if possible, become more and more independent as they grow older? Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News.
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