Children don’t always benefit from disability payments

About a month ago, Nick Kristof of The New York Times created a stir when he called out parents who pull $698 a month for their children’s mental disability. Actually, he called them out for cheating.

According to Kristof, the parents are pulling their children out of literacy programs because if the child begins to succeed in school, the Social Security Disability Income check will not be in the mail. The parents are making a choice between literacy and the monthly check, choosing the check.

Kristof, an avowed liberal, is exposing the dirty underbelly of a program whose underbelly was already none too clean. According to a National Bureau of Economic Research report, over the past two decades, the share of Social Security spending accounted for by disability payments has grown from 10% to 17%, mostly due to the growth of self-reported disabilities such as mental disorders and musculoskeletal problems (from 29% of all reported disabilities in 1983 to 51% in 2003). In other words, if you tell the doctor you are depressed or have a backache, you can get DI benefits.

In this, the political extremes of right and left could be considered to be coming together. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly had charged during the presidential campaign that the U.S. government was deliberately putting unemployed workers on the disability rolls. While it is hard to see that any politician can make the bureaucracy move quickly to put people on the dole, it is true that independent and clear-eyed analyses indicate that disability requests increase during periods of unemployment.

In other words, DI supplements the unemployment system.

NBER also brings up a phenomenon we all suspect but the authors of the NBER report quantify: cheating. The authors think that a growing number of DI beneficiaries are discouraged workers. More than 30% of the beneficiaries, in fact. So as of the NBER report’s writing, DI benefits made up 15% of Medicare benefits.

So what does this have to do with the children’s DI program? Well, according to Kristof, the point is that the parents are not using the program to ensure their children’s success. He is complaining, rightly so, that taking the funds without seeking the medical benefit is fraudulent, as well as harmful to children.

I have a less charitable view. You see, the DI program relies on lawyers to seek appeals of the first-round bureaucratic findings. This has spurred the creation of a new class of ambulance chasers who will advocate for your child, claiming that the child has ADHD and needs care, medication, and other expensive considerations.

I recently met one of these lawyers through mutual friends. He is a really nice fellow, young, a University of Wisconsin law graduate. He described his practice to me in glowing, if not gleeful terms. He described the issues he deals with in order to ensure the appeals process finds for his client, thus ensuring he wins his contingent fee. And in a moment of devastating truth, he indicated what his clients do with the funds in order to ensure their children’s success.

It turns out, all his clients do one thing when they win their case.

They buy a big-screen.

 

Now, you can point out, truthfully, that I have not practiced good journalism because I have not interviewed the young lawyer and portrayed all sides of this argument.

So I will let the reader make his or her own inquiries to determine the actual need for youth supplemental disability income. And I will let the reader determine whether the best way to ensure that children’s health is maintained is through a broken advocacy process where cynical actors can funnel payments their own way.

For me, the answer is that the times demand that we address the thorny question of benefit allocation honestly and with integrity. Let us not let the cynical and the craven make the decision for us.

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