STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Are we making stuff up about disability benefits?

TAL story comments

Chana Joffe-Walt's recent pieceon This American Life about how disability payments are the new welfare has a lot of people pretty mad. Media Matters put out a scathing response to the piece, calling it "error riddled" and citing it for myth making. That in turn, has gotten a lot of other people mad. 

I'm of two minds about the piece. I've wanted us to do a story about it, but TAL beat us to the punch. Sources  tell me just how dependency on the disability system is growing and growing. They're right, in Michigan there are at least100 thousand more people getting disability payments than there are people getting cash assistance.

But I do see why comment threads are saying that hit came off like a sucker punch. It accused poor people of gaming the system, again!

Even if the portrait was in many ways sympathetic, and about how messed up the economy is, it's hard to shake the feeling many people on disability are somehow getting away with something unfair. 

I think the real story of skyrocketing disability benefits is more like a sloppy fight between drunks. Ugly, embarrassing, and what's more, probably avoidable. 

This is not a response to the TAL piece as much as it is a supplement to the conversation. Disability benefits are going to get more attention, from reporters and policy makers, and armchair pundits. Here are a couple of things that probably bear remembering, even if does make the story a little messier. 

Disability is real.

As a nation we have often been dismissive of people with disabilities. Only 40 years ago people with disabilities were routinely locked up and denied their basic human rights.

People with disabilities are still routinely discriminated against in serious ways at work, at school and on the street. This discrimination was only banned by the federal government in 1990

Not every disability is one we can easily see, but that doesn't make these disabilities less real. For every back-pain claim we roll our eyes at, there are also stories like this one from Rolland Morse, a Kalamazoo-based lawyer I spoke with who makes his living filing and appealing disability claims. He went through a long list of his recent clients, none of whom seemed sketchy, because if they were he wouldn't take their cases.

One of the people he told me about is 19-year-old woman dying from muscular dystrophy. She can't work, now or ever, because she can't carry on normal activities for any real stretch of time. Her disability claim was denied, like the majority of all disability claims in the state. She was awarded benefits on appeal. 


The story about disability benefits is really one about poverty, as the TAL piece pointed out. The poverty rate is shockingly high. One of four people in a county in Hale County, Alabama are on disability and we collectively say, "What's going on there?"  It is equally true that almost one in four kids are living in poverty in Michigan. That problem needs a real solution

Why are the feds paying for all of this? 

States want people off their cash assistance roles. Shifting the cost to the federal government makes sense for the states. Third party contractors are happy to help make that happen for a healthy fee-gross.

But there is another party who isn't included in this discussion.


The rise in disability is climbing at the same time plants are shuttering, pensions are vanishing and new laws make workers comp harder to get. The states and the feds are picking up these tabs in many different ways, including burgeoning disability claims.

Disability benefits aren't easy to get.

Many more  people have disability benefits now than in the past, but it is still not easy to get disability. Don't less this become the next welfare myth.

The disability claim process  in Michigan takes, on average, a year-without appeals. Most people are turned down for disability the first time, even people with clearly serious disabilities. As Rolland Morse, the attorney, said to me, "The reality is, it's really hard to get benefits." 

Kids can be successful, even if they're "pulling a check."

The discussion in the piece about a 10-year-old getting disability benefits his family relied on for part of their income was troubling.

Some social service providers say families are relying on their kids disability benefits and that puts the kids and the families in an awkward position. 

But here are things I also know.

You can't tell the severity of a disability just by looking at a kid.

Kids with disabilities require a tremendous amount of time and specialized health care. Many parents of kids with disabilities have to scale back their own work to keep up with the care needed. 

Schools have a duty to educate kids with disabilities, no matter what their parents want. Each kid with a disability in public school has an Individualized Education Plan. Schools, and parents agree what the child's goals are and what accommodations they need to be successful. If a kid has a disability payment coming in nobody has the right to give up on a kid and say they can't be successful in school, period. Parents shouldn't do this, but schools are legally prohibited from doing this. 

There is more to this discussion I'm sure. Go forth and debate, and let us know your thoughts.