(Bloomberg View) — The U.S. faces a social and fiscal crisis: Millions of Americans of prime working age do not have jobs, while the cost of federal disability programs — which many in the non-working population have come to rely on — has skyrocketed. And there’s no end in sight.
One solution: Let’s reassess whether people really cannot work and, for those who are able, move them into jobs.
If you think this is an unrealistic goal, remember there is ample precedent: the successful welfare-to-work evolution that began in 1996. More than 60 percent of the welfare rolls were trimmed in the first decade, and people made the transition to work because they had to.
Today, approximately nine million people in the U.S. collect disability, compared with three million in 1990. This rise has occurred despite better medical management of the major afflictions that result in disability, from mental disorders like depression and anxiety to diabetes to bad backs. The two big disability programs for the recipients cost $150 billion in 2015. Close to an additional $100 billion is spent for health care.
As was the case with welfare, a disability industrial complex has become entrenched, the aim being to put as many people on the rolls as possible and keep them there. Bureaucrats and administrative judges handcuffed by technical formulas are either forced to accept an application for disability insurance or are predisposed by compassion to do so. This industry includes lawyers who specialize in helping people get disability insurance.
How can we break the cycle, humanely, and provide the opportunity for the dignity of work? By “work,” I don’t mean “make work” public-sector jobs. While those programs serve as a useful transition, they are not the long-term solution. My for-profit company, which began as a welfare-to-work program in 1984, contracts with government agencies to get the disabled into private-sector jobs.
Our experience is that job training and education are not as effective as putting people into jobs first. Most of our candidates have been failed by schools and training programs. Success in a job leads to advancement, self-reliance and the spiritual value of work well done. It is then that education and training become relevant to the worker and provide for upgrading and better wages.
First, let’s dispel the myth that people on disability do not want to work or they can’t. A similar argument was made about welfare recipients back in the 1980s. There are, of course, many people collecting benefits who are unable to hold a job, for physical or mental reasons. The purpose of Social Security Disability Insurance is to help them.