After listening to the NPR series that seems to suggest there are, and after reading several articles and blog posts about the topic arising out of the series, I've come to the insightful and courageous answer … yes and no.
Yes, there probably are quite a few people collecting Disability who don't really have disabilities as most people understand the term. While some of this can be explained by the fact that "disability" has several different and equally legitimate meanings, I'm sure that there are some people who wouldn't be on disability at all if it weren't for other factors, like our wounded economy, age, and shifts in the nature of the workforce.
Yes, there probably are doctors, lawyers, and social workers who have ulterior motives for getting more and more people on Disability, whether it's direct profit, or a need to hide or unload more unemployed people so local welfare rolls stay low and the whole concept of "welfare reform" looks more successful than it may actually be.
That said …
No, Disability isn't going through the roof. It's rising but there are normal, honest reasons for that, including the overall aging of the population. As the Baby Boom generation nears retirement, some of them won't make it all the way there before their bodies "give out" in some way, forcing them to use Disability to bridge the gap until they reach retirement age.
No, Disability isn't literally going to run out of money. If and when the current reserves run out, Congress can and probably will figure out another way to pay for Disability. No matter how harshly we speak about some of the unemployed, I don't think that society is prepared … morally or practically … to allow millions of people with disabilities and / or other marginal conditions to starve and go homeless.
No, Disability is not a dead end. The tools for self-sufficiency are already located within the program itself, and it is increasingly linked with vocational rehabilitation and other programs that can help people with disabilities pursue work and careers. These programs aren't well known and are under-used, but that can be changed.
No program is perfect; they all have room for improvement, Social Security Disability included. Here are some ideas:
- Stop hiring for-profit companies to do the work of helping Disability applicants. Hire only not-for-profit agencies, and carefully calibrate their funding so that they are able to hire well-trained staff, but not to accumulate wealth or pay massive salaries to management. This will help take the profit motive out of the system, and render lawyers a true last resort for people with only the most complex appeals.
- Strengthen Social Security Work Incentives. Make them simpler, easier to understand and use, and then put more effort into publicizing them. Make helping people with disabilities work towards self-sufficiency a central goal of the Disability program.
- Strengthen the programs that help all people who are unemployed, so there is less need to refer people to Disability who may not belong there, while making sure they do receive help when they need it. This should take into account the fact that economic downturns, large-scale changes in industries, and age are real, difficult factors to overcome for people looking for jobs.
Above all, let's not forget that Social Security Disability programs, for all their shortcomings, do achieve their most fundamental goal. In a time most of us are too young to remember, disability was virtually synonymous with extreme poverty. That's no longer the case, due in large part to Disability. That's a real accomplishment that unfortunately is hard to appreciate, because we've forgotten how bad things can really be.