The bulging numbers of “disabled” Americans is more of a testament to human nature and government planning than a reflection on health. The policy to assist the disabled started out decent enough. It was back in 1956 when the program called the, Social Security Disability Insurance, was initiated which lent assistance to those who were permanently disabled, terminally ill and over 50 years of age. Though there were several Americans who matched the criteria, government found away to do more and more people found away to become disabled.
In the 1960’s during the President Johnson’s Great Society push, the minimum age was dropped and new categories were created to cover those suffering from injuries or sickness or otherwise any condition that prevented one from engaging “in substantial gainful activity.” That broad cover allowed many Americans to fill the ranks of the “disabled.” Some claimed physical ailments, others depression. Onwards these small steps continued until finally the Census Bureau released their findings on the 22 anniversary for Americans with Disabilities Act, that now 1 in 5 Americans are reported as disabled.
During the span between 2005 and 2010, the number of disabled Americans grew by 2.2 percent bringing the total population of the disabled to 57 million. The Census Bureau seemed to have understood the factors behind these growing numbers if not realizing it. “Estimates of the size and characteristics of this population depend much on the definitions used to classify what it means to be disabled.”
None of this is to suggest that there aren’t Americans who are really disabled. The assistance from the Americans with Disabilities Act and Social Security Disability Insurance help them sustain a livelihood, if unfortunately, a meager one. However, with the swelling ranks the disability trust fund will be exhausted by 2016, potentially harming those who need it. Today about one-fifth of Social Security spending covers those who claim disabilities. Moreover, this means the government will have to borrow more money and increase the national debt to meet its obligations. According to the Census Bureau, the government is already on the hook for $357 billion dollars a year in benefits to working age disabled individuals.
The problem is a perfect convergence between human nature and misguided government policy. Government often deals on the ideal with little regard to the actual outcome. Predictably in this case, it creates incentives not to work and during tough economic times, a way to receive free income, which equals better than a minimum wage job with Medicare benefits. Charles Lane from the Washington Post unsurprisingly found that only one percent have left the program since the 1980s.
If America is truly serious about creating economic vitality and tap into dormant resources and capital, the answer is not to invest in an exuberant welfare state system, but to create jobs that generate wages, mobility, and personal satisfaction. With more Americans working, consumerism increases, houses go up, businesses open and the tax burden is spread out more evenly along the spectrum. The recharged private sector will generate government revenue to help those who truly are in need of assistance. Anything different means less economic productivity, loss of government revenue, increased borrowing and a great financial burden to be paid out by a declining number of earners.