Do We Really Need To Do This? Disability Benefits are No Walk In the Park

Britain has been facing a tide of rhetoric about ‘disabled scroungers’ for years now, though it’s really more of an upwelling in a constantly seething sea, and it’s spreading to the US. Notable, of course, is the fact that the economy is in turmoil and people are looking for easy targets. Disabled people are apparently an easy unification point, swanning about on their government benefits, taking advantage of the money hard-working people are forced to fork over in taxes, without doing a single thing to benefit society at all.

This kind of rhetoric isn’t new, but it is dangerous, and it’s particularly perturbing to see it advanced in mainstream media in the US, especially when the logic used to back it up is not just hateful, but also incorrect. Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote last December about an alleged plague of backwards Appalachians working the disability benefit system to cash in on their children. Sean Fremstad at the Center for Economic and Policy Research wryly called Kristof ‘brave’ for taking this position; one that, I note, was heralded by conservatives, who were absolutely delighted to see a liberal darling like Kristof promoting the dismantlement of social welfare programmes that serve a relatively small number of children, with excellent results.

Then in March, This American Life took its own swing at the bat with a ludicrous report that included a number of very harmful myths about disability itself and how the benefits system worked. NPR picked it up and promoted it heavily; it kept showing up in my sidebar, infuriating me to a high degree. Hannah Groch-Begley at Media Matters for America brilliantly broke down the series of myths presented and refuted them with actual facts, pointing out that the story was fundamentally wrong, obviously poorly fact-checked, and seriously biased. Yet, every liberal’s favourite hipster glasses-bedecked radio personality stood by the report. Conservatives, naturally, lapped up every minute of it.

There are several important things going on here. One is the constant reminder that ableism is prevalent across political stripes, and that liberals engage in it every bit as much as conservatives do, even though they don’t like to be told that. People with significant clout in liberal and progressive circles are repeating dangerous and harmful myths about disability and government benefits, and their fans are taking this ‘information’ and running with it, which has real-world effects for disabled people struggling to survive. There’s a very poor understanding of how disability benefits actually work, and what it’s like to survive on them.

I’ve pointed out here on numerous occasions that disability benefits are structurally designed to keep disabled people in a state of enforced poverty. Those who can and want to work are effectively barred from doing so because if they do, they lose the benefits they need, yet, they can’t afford their care on their own. Disabled people aren’t allowed to own any assets if they want benefits, even if those assets are things like homes they inherit or cars over a certain value. To be disabled in the United States is to live in a constant state of hand to mouth poverty, relying on the minimal support offered by benefits cheques, which is not actually enough to live on, realistically.

To qualify for disability, you first need to be medically certified as disabled, which is a lengthy process with a serious backlog, particularly for disabled veterans. Once you’re determined ‘disabled enough’ to qualify for assistance, a series of checkboxes determine how disabled you are and what kinds of benefits you get. For example, if you need an aide or a personal assistant, how many hours a week you get? Should you have enough to pay for multiple visits a day, or should you be allowed to sit in your own waste between toileting sessions? These are the kinds of cold, clinical calculations made by the people in charge of disability benefits. Have a problem with them? Sure, go ahead and appeal. Enjoy the wait.

While waiting for a decision on benefits or an appeal, people are still expected to support themselves, somehow. Apparently this happens by magic; if, for example, you had a severe stroke that limits your ability to work and require an aide to assist you, you’ll just have to pay for all that on your own. Oh, you can’t afford it? Not the government’s problem. Stay on someone’s couch or something. Need medications? Well, you can figure something out. Your work took you off your health coverage? Well, maybe you can petition a drug company for a compassionate use or financial assistance programme, they have those, you know?

Disability benefits are not lavish. Like other government benefits, they lag far, far behind the cost of living and the expenses associated with health care. People living on disability may have things that seem lavish to the observer, but those things? Are medically necessary, or funded with outside assistance. People with nice wheelchair vans, for example? The government doesn’t pay for those, they or foundations do, and the van is critical for mobility to get around if you have a heavy powerchair and ventilator.

The claim that disabled people are somehow ‘working the system’ is rooted in the idea that this is a sweet gig, and disability benefits provide all kinds of opportunities; particularly if you can pop out a couple of kids that will ‘pull in a cheque.’ It’s also rooted in the idea that disabled people don’t deserve basic civil and human rights. Disabled people don’t deserve the right to go outside. Disabled people don’t deserve the right to not lie in their own piss and shit. Disabled people don’t deserve the right to stable supplies of the medication they need to stay alive. Disabled people don’t deserve the right to live in their communities with assistance from aides (which, by the way, is cheaper than institutionalisation). Disabled people don’t deserve the right to have housing at all, let alone food or access to safe environments.

That’s the subtext of these claims about disabled scroungers.