Sunday, March 24, 2013

NPR report shows how disability in the US relates to the job market

NPR's Planet Money has this report on the increase in the number of disabled in America. This report is one of the most honest I've ever seen on the issue. One fact it points out that far too many ignore is that many of those who have gone on disability aren't making up their health problems but could work if there were actually any jobs for them. The brutal truth is that there just aren't enough jobs in this country for the people who live here.

Large numbers of people deny this is true and use various metrics to attempt to prove their point. They really love to point to the number of ads for jobs versus the official unemployment numbers. There are multiple problems with this metric. For one thing the official unemployment number of U3 as it is called by the BLS doesn't include those who are underemployed currently who would also be applying for those jobs. U3 also doesn't count discouraged workers, those who aren't currently looking for work but who could re-enter the job market if only they thought there was something for them in it. It also, as this NPR report points out, doesn't count those who have gone on disability because they felt that was their only option. The reporter who did the piece for NPR cites a perfect example of the type of disconnect that exists many places in this country when it comes to jobs and the people who need them.

Over and over again, I'd listen to someone's story of how back pain meant they could no longer work, or how a shoulder injury had put them out of a job. Then I would ask: What about a job where you don't have to lift things, or a job where you don't have to use your shoulder, or a job where you can sit down? They would look at me as if I were asking, "How come you didn't consider becoming an astronaut?"

One woman I met, Ethel Thomas, is on disability for back pain after working many years at the fish plant, and then as a nurse's aide. When I asked her what job she would have in her dream world, she told me she would be the woman at the Social Security office who weeds through disability applications. I figured she said this because she thought she'd be good at weeding out the cheaters. But that wasn't it. She said she wanted this job because it is the only job she's seen where you get to sit all day.

At first, I found this hard to believe. But then I started looking around town. There's the McDonald's, the fish plant, the truck repair shop. I went down a list of job openings -- Occupational Therapist, McDonald's, McDonald's, Truck Driver (heavy lifting), KFC, Registered Nurse, McDonald's.

I actually think it might be possible that Ethel could not conceive of a job that would accommodate her pain.

The private sector (or the free market if you prefer) is completely incapable of doing anything about this problem. It has no interest in doing something about it. That's not their job, you see. Their job is to provide a service or a product that people will pay for and that they can make a profit on. Jobs are a byproduct. And in the modern world they are not an inevitable byproduct. Look honestly at the last few decades and you will find that the same Wall Street institutions that are now saying they are worried about the job market and how consumers have no money to spend are the same ones that have consistently encouraged publicly traded corporations to fire people in the name of cost cutting and increasing profits. If a business is actually having serious problems that can threaten it, this strategy is understandable. When they don't have problems but are just firing people to look good to analysts who have unrealistic expectations when it comes to growth they are eliminating assets as often as they are "cutting the fat". Where we find ourselves now is the result of decades of these policies. However the jobs are eliminated, whether by shipping the work overseas, automating them out of existence, restructuring the system so they no longer exist or using IT to enable fewer people to do the same amount of work the effect is the same. Fewer jobs exist and of those that do fewer of them pay a living wage.

The last sad truth that I think should be recognized when this issue is discussed is that there are those who remain convinced that the free market can fix it. They appear to believe that the free market can fix anything or at least come close enough that private charities can close the gap. There is no evidence that this is true. Appeals to history that claim that it has always been true are false and even if they were, the aphorism that history always repeats itself doesn't hold up that well when the world truly has changed in so many ways. It's a popular logical fallacy to believe in and one that will likely prevent us from finding a solution to this problem any time soon.