Unfounded Assumptions and Faulty Logic, Ahoy!

s.e. emailed me an alert to this Atlantic post by Derek Thompson about the potential hidden costs of failing to extend unemployment insurance benefits, with a warning that I would likely ‘enjoy’ it. So I clicked through with trepidation. Rightfully so. I’ll excerpt the relevant piece here so you don’t need to reward this nonsense with pageviews (and if you do, avoid the comments, which are full of “unemployed people are fundamentally lazy” tripe):

Consider this statistic, from Peter Orszag at an event in DC called The Future of American Jobs Part II: The number of applications for the Social Security Disability Insurance has increased from an average of 500,000 per quarter in 2006 to 750,000 in 2010. Why? Well, it’s unlikely that American disabilities themselves have increased by 50 percent in the last four years. It is more likely that healthy Americans discouraged from the awful job market have sought out disability insurance and collected Social Security money even though they’re not actually disabled.

SSDI requires that its recipients be unable to work. Unemployment insurance, on the other hand, requires that its recipients look for work. Like any government program, UI can be gamed, and sometimes it surely is. But the fundamental point holds: If we stop supporting unemployed people with cash, there is a risk that we kick them out of the labor force onto disability insurance, where we pick up the tab by paying for them through SSDI not to work and not to look for work.

WHERE TO EVEN BEGIN, amirite? Let’s start with identifying the huge, glaring factual error in the argument – the assumption that all SSDI requires for eligibility is “that its recipients be unable to work.” You may not be surprised to learn that the long term disability insurance program through the federal government actually requires that the individual’s inability to work be due to a disability, rather than due to a lack of jobs at their skill level, or a lack of jobs that pay living wages, or any number of other reasons that a person would be unable to work. Yes, this disability benefits program actually has requirements about having a disability! And the Social Security Administration requires quite a lot of verification from medical professionals (who it considers more objective and reliable than people themselves) that it independently reviews and assesses before determining whether a person has a disability that qualifies them for SSDI. You cannot just walk into a Social Security office and demand SSDI benefits, no matter how long you’ve been out of work.

Now let’s look at the statistic he is using to lend legitimacy to his argument: “The number of applications for the Social Security Disability Insurance has increased from an average of 500,000 per quarter in 2006 to 750,000 in 2010.” What does this statistic tell us? It does not tell us anything about the trends, if any, of people receiving SSDI – just the number applying for it. Granted there is some cost to Social Security to review and assess these applications, but the main cost Thompson is raising is the amount of money spent on SSDI benefits – about which this statistic tells us absolutely nothing. Even the knowledge that there are 250,000 more SSDI applications per quarter this year than in 2006 tells us nothing about whether the application (or approval) rates are anywhere near the actual underlying prevalence rates.  Even if disability rates have remained perfectly stable, we have no idea whether the 500,000 applications per quarter in 2006 was undercapturing the number of people who were actually eligible for SSDI.

(This built-in, unstated assumption that the starting point in increasing disability benefit rates was the “correct” or desired rate and that any increases are dirty lying cheating fraudulent people is extremely common. You see it in discussions about changes in special education enrollment, rates at which students are identified with learning disabilities, and more. And the assumption that the lower rate correctly reflects the actual prevalence in the population is so ingrained that people, including Thompson, do not even state that they are making such an assumption. It should be obvious to the reader, they imagine, that lower disability benefit rates are right!)

But Thompsons’ main point – that people currently in the workforce may shift to disability benefits if they are unable to find work – gets to the conflation of “disabled” and “unemployable” that I’ve discussed before. There are certainly people who would meet the criteria for SSDI who are employed right now, influenced by any number of factors including the stigma against not working, the difficulty of verifying eligibility for SSDI, and the likely higher income available through work. Unemployment may motivate those people towards SSDI, but so could a bunch of other things, like failure to provide reasonable accommodations at work and employment discrimination against people with disabilities. But a whole lot of people who are unemployed are simply ineligible for SSDI, because they’re unemployed for economic reasons and do not have a disability that would qualify them for SSDI.

A potential takeaway from this kind of thinking is that for reasons including saving money on disability benefits, we should mitigate and eliminate barriers to employment for people with disabilities. But this post concludes that because everyone on unemployment could pull down the higher SSDI benefits if they got the notion, we should support the unemployed. That’s not relevant either to people with disabilities or without them and is fundamentally nonsense.

By 8 December, 2010.    blaming, news, policy, poverty  ,  


  1. I’m one of those people applying for disability right now, I have epilepsy and it’s not fully controlled by medications (I do take them , they just don’t work enough to keep me seizure free). The main reason is why i’m applying is my husband has been unemployed for over two years now and when he had a job we had no need of benefits, but now with no income we need something to live on ( family helps right now). My husband also has a mental illness that is well controlled by medication . We both have other health problems. All four of us, him the two kids and myself are on the autistic spectrum. When he had his good job, to our familys, we were a great success and inspiration and now we get to hear stuff like ” what were you you two thinking having kids?!”. I don’t know maybe we were pretty optimistic, and successful my husband had a very good job with benefits who were understanding about his mental illness , my seizures were controlled with a medicine I can no longer take, life looked pretty good 15 years ago. I sold art and handmade dolls, now people don’t want to buy a 200$ doll very much. Stuff happens and things change. People whose lives were going well, who could have qualified had other options, now , well people do need to survive somehow.

  2. Terrific article (yours, not Derek Thompson’s).

    It always amazes me, ever since I actually looked into applying for SSDI, how easy everyone who’s never tried applying for it thinks it is to get disability benefits. They seem to think all you need to do is ask for them and boom, you’re there.

    Come to think of it, these same people also tend to think it’s a lot easier than it is to get a job …
    Lindsay´s last blog post ..Wheelchair Dancer on Gender and Disability in Everyday Interactions

  3. I think the stat about more disability applications is totally relevant – I’ve been trying to find a decent job ever since I got sick, and avoiding the ssdi thing as long as possible, but after a few years I’m starting to wonder what I’m really facing when it comes to employment options. And the job market isn’t encouraging me whatsoever. Though, I don’t see why it matters if people are being paid through disability insurance or employment insurance- wither way it’s a welfare program that people are going to whine about the government paying for.

  4. As the other commenters have mentioned, the reason for the increase in applications is quite simple: more people are *needing* the assistance. Doesn’t mean they’re faking their disability. Doesn’t mean they’re bludging. Just means they were previously in a situation where they didn’t need assistance, and now their situation has changed. The increase in applications probably also has a number of people on the list who are in the same situation as a friend of mine here in .au – he got put onto the Disability Support Pension when he went to our Social Security provider to get the unemployment benefit, and he’s thoroughly disgusted by it – so there are probably people who went in to apply for Unemployment Insurance, and got told they didn’t qualify because in the current job market, they aren’t employable.

    By the bye, we had the same sort of idiocy spouted in our papers down here in .au about a year or so back – the whole perception that people who were applying for sickness allowance or Disability Support Pension were just lazy types who were trying to rort the system and bludge off our welfare spending etc etc etc. Having worked for our Social Security provider, I can say quite clearly the Australian system is not easily rortable. First up, you have to convince your GP (and any relevant specialists) you’re suffering from something which won’t fix itself within the next two years. Second up, you then have to convince a government-employed GP and a board of assessors at Centrelink of the same thing. And third up, this doesn’t necessarily excuse you from looking for work – it just changes the type of work you’re expected to be looking for. You’ll still get shoved toward an Employment Service Provider, and given regular Job Capacity Assessments, just to make sure you’re still disabled (hey, St Mary McKillop may well be looking at another miracle, after all!).

  5. Interesting the implications of ableism and ageism don’t seem to cross any of the critic’s minds. I’m sure that a number of those applying in last couple of years are people who are realizing that as a PWD who is over 40 or over 50, their ability to compete in an extraordinarily narrow job market is significantly compromised.

    There are some stunning and harrowing statistics out there about the likelihood of being hired right now if you’re “of a certain age” and how that likelihood drops the longer you’ve been unemployed, drops more the older you are, and is next to nil in certain job sectors. Add in a disability and I’m sure that there are a lot of people who can see the writing on the wall: they want to work, work doesn’t want them. Disability is the only other option.