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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

NPR, Disability and Perverse Incentives

When NPR does a good story, you have to give them credit. In this series–complete with visuals–the author travels around the country looking at the real flesh-and-blood people on “disability,” a program that can be more expensive, and more permanent, than welfare. 

Unsurprisingly, the disability rolls have swelled along with the unemployment rate. The statistics show a country with 14 million people who are purportedly unfit for work. Here's one scenario:

In Hale County, Alabama, 1 in 4 working-age adults is on disability. On the day government checks come in every month, banks stay open late, Main Street fills up with cars, and anybody looking to unload an old TV or armchair has a yard sale.

Sonny Ryan, a retired judge in town, didn't hear disability cases in his courtroom. But the subject came up often. He described one exchange he had with a man who was on disability but looked healthy.

“Just out of curiosity, what is your disability?” the judge asked from the bench.

“I have high blood pressure,” the man said.

“So do I,” the judge said. “What else?”

“I have diabetes.”

“So do I.”

Of course, we have to ask: in how many of these 14 million scenarios is the person really unfit for work? If you can hire a lawyer to get you a check every month — forever — then why wouldn't you?

NPR plays this straight. But in the background there seems to be a subtext of perverse incentives at work. Readers of this publication understand how systems like this work. And even NPR has a section in this series called the “Disability-Industrial Complex.”

Read the whole thing.

(Update: I have added an excerpt on disability, malingering and the Robin Hood ethic from the Andy Griffith Show.)

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