Political Animal


April 08, 2013 3:22 PM The New, “New Welfare Queens”

By Ed Kilgore

One of the more fascinating political phenomena of the last few years has been the search by constitutionally infuriated conservatives for some of the racially charged mojo of the anti-welfare campaigns of the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. Whether you think the welfare reform legislation of 1996 was a success, a mixed success, or an abject failure, it did indeed defuse “welfare queen” demagoguery decisively.

But the decline of cash public assistance payments as a target has been accompanied by the identification of new targets, particularly since the rise of Barack Obama and the revival of racial politics on the Right (I’ve written about this extensively, here, here and here). These include beneficiaries of the Community Reinvestment Act, that obscure and limited program encouraging mortgage lenders to cast their net more widely, which assumed lurid dimensions in conservative explanations of the housing and financial crises of 2008; those receiving counter-cyclical assistance (including expanded unemployment assistance and the enhanced Earned Income Tax Credit) during the Great Recession; and of course those receiving health coverage under Obamacare.

When Mitt Romney went back to the original “welfare queen” narrative during the 2012 campaign by mendaciously claiming Obama was “gutting” welfare reform, it was almost a relief.

But now there’s yet another new target in sight for conservatives in search of a symbol of big government linking arms with freeloaders and “takers:” the Social Security Disability program.

The furor seems to have started outside conservative politics, with an NPR story by Chana Joffe-Walt on the steep rise in the number of people officially certified as disabled. The main focus on her piece was the clear connection she found between the shrinking number of jobs available (before and after the Great Recession) for people of limited education and their efforts (often assisted by advocates) to qualify for Disability. But purveyors of conservative agitprop quickly saw the opportunity, and soon Jonah Goldberg of National Review and the fine folks at the Wall Street Journal were on the bandwagon, with the latter suggesting the rise of disability claims was a big factor in slow jobs growth (aha! you could almost hear conservative message-meisters say, this is why the unemployment rate’s gone down under Obama!).

The pushback to this disability-is-the-new-welfare talk has followed two argument-in-the-alternative directions. Both The Atlantic’s Philip Bump and MoJo’s Kevin Drum have looked at the numbers and concluded that most of the “spike” in disability spending is attributable to the predictable aging of the Baby Boom generation. Kevin has also responded to the largely anecdotal evidence of people turning to Disability not because they can’t work but because they can’t find work by suggesting that’s the price we are paying for failing to deal with a chronic disconnect between jobs and workers:

There are a growing number of workers who are all but unemployable, and we can either throw them on the streets or else we can provide them with a small government benefit. Most of us, even the ones who talk the toughest, aren’t willing to toss people out on the streets, so by hook or by crook, disability has become our way of providing the unemployable with a small pension. It’s obviously a million miles from perfect, but it’s better than nothing. And no one has a serious incentive to fix it, because fixing it would mean facing up directly to the problem.

That’s true, but there’s a simpler explanation for the upward pressure on Disability certification, best described by the constant issue in all government programs of “takeup rates.” For any given “entitlement,” there are millions of Americans who qualify but would prefer to secure benefits via employment. When jobs become scare, the “takeup rate”—the percentage of people who apply—goes up. That doesn’t mean there is “fraud” involved or that these people are “takers;” they’re just pursuing entirely legitimate public options for keeping themselves alive that they wouldn’t necessarily pursue in better times. That’s an entirely separate issue from claims that standards of eligibility are being deliberately relaxed because we don’t know what else to do with these folks.

It’s all the more reason to stay focused on creating jobs, and to continue the hard, slow slog of efforts to help more people qualify for the jobs that do exist via improved education and training measures. But conservatives have a really hard time accepting chronic unemployment as anything other than (a) the product of policies that persecute the poor job-creator, or (b) reflecting a moral collapse of the working class, or (c) both. Or perhaps it’s just that keeping alive the boogeyman of the “welfare queens” who are laugh-laugh-laughing as they and liberal elites conspire to rob virtuous hard-working Americans is a political weapon on which conservatives have become all too dependent.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • golack on April 08, 2013 3:43 PM:

    Wasn't part of the NPR radio show about companies that contract with states to help identify people eligible for disability and then move them onto the disability roles? It's cheaper for the states to have people on disability, though not cheaper for the Feds. And I believe this is being aggressively pursued by Republican governors as a cost-cutting measure. Ok, their costs go down--not the costs to the Feds.

  • jjm on April 08, 2013 3:56 PM:

    There are counties in California with 100% of residents on welfare AND 100% employment. (Ag communities) The wages are so low they have to have welfare to get by.

    Welfare has long been the standby for industries, including the auto industry, but also agriculture, where demand for the products and therefore labor goes up and down dramatically often seasonally.

    It's never been about government taking care of the poor, but of taking care of industry.

  • Zorro on April 08, 2013 3:57 PM:

    Or perhaps it’s just that keeping alive the boogeyman of the “welfare queens”... is a political weapon on which conservatives have become all too dependent.

    Conservatives have become dependent on this myth for a simple reason: it works for them in that enough people believe it to vote for conservative GOP candidates.


  • c u n d gulag on April 08, 2013 4:01 PM:

    I'm 55, and have been unemployed for 4 years, with my last job being my absolute worst - telemarketing research books to underfunded HS and College Libraries.

    THE WORST!!!

    Before that, I'd had a number of jobs, some in corporations, where I was a Trainer, and Training Manager, at other times, a bartender, bouncer, and worked in retail - and on the dock at IBM, receiving, and sending parts. I was even an Adjunct Professor for almost 6 years, while I was bartending and acting, to help supplement my income.

    I've worked since I was 14, part-time back then, in stores, and then worked full-time during the summers in the Machine Shop where my Father was the Foreman.

    The longest I was ever unemployed in all that taime, was less than a month - and even then, I was waiting for someone to leave their job, before I could get it.

    Why was I unemployed so little?
    Because I wanted to work, and took jobs like bartender/bouncer, when times were tough in the corporate job market.

    And I would gladly do so again, but I'm physically unable to.

    I was turned away for SSDI 18 months ago, and am going to try again.

    I'd rather find a meaningful job.
    But, I'm 55, and handicapped to the point where I have extremely limited mobility, and can hardly walk or stand - hell, I can't even sit without pain. And forget about a good night's sleep, with my chronic hip pain. And besides, no one's hiring us 55 year old's, handicapped, or not.

    So, what do I do?
    Just go somewhere and die?

    With global warming, I can't even get on an ice-flow on the Hudson River, like some Eskimo, and go out until I either freeze or drown - there's almost no more ice on the Hudson. Or, at least not enough to get on and flow down to my death.

    So, when my Mom passes away, it'll either be SSDI, depend on family - like my sister, who has a tough enough time making ends mee - or live under an overpass.

    I used to love this country.

    But now, I can't stand what's been done to it - all in the name of sociopathic greed.

    My other plan is to commit some as yet, undetermined, serious crime, and go to jail for the rest of my life.

    Two/Three-hot's-and-a-cot beats living under an overpass!

    And at my age, I don't think I'd make anyone an appealing jailhouse boy/girl-friend.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on April 08, 2013 4:12 PM:

    This one has also seen an uptick in legal advertisements on the tube for SS denials. Sign of the times.

    For any given “entitlement,” there are millions of Americans who qualify but would prefer to secure benefits via employment.

    I don't know if the evil bots on the Right have even the spark of humanity to consider that many people on welfare--even the poorest of the poor--do have a sense of shame about their circumstances. I would argue that there's nothing shameful about being in unfortunate circumstances and availing oneself of publicly available entitlements. But, nevertheless, such is the case that poverty has been thoroughly stigmatized in this nation.

    And, yes, people even in neighborhoods of the working poor do have a since of shame about being on the welfare. I remember growing up in the 90s with kids who'd make fun of other kids because they had to eat "government cheese" or used food stamps. Even when my mother was on food stamps, me and my sisters made a point of being nowhere near the cash register when she whipped out those multi-color-obviously-not-greenback food stamps. FWIW, I still get the willies about admitting that my family was on welfare for while.

    But many have no other choice but to swallow their pride and make ends meet somehow and some way. And I'd bet that those on welfare would love nothing more than a job that actually pays enough to cover their living expenses instead of these minimum-wage crap jobs that barely cover the cost of transportation alone.

  • emjayay on April 08, 2013 4:23 PM:

    golack: Yes.

    c u n d gulag: You need one of those advocate lawyer guys that get everyone on SS disability. I'm guessing they recommend cooperative doctors.

    Everyone: the NPR piece is worth listening to.

  • c u n d gulag on April 08, 2013 4:30 PM:

    I'm on Welfar... er... uhm... you can't call it THAT, anymore... Temporary Assistance.

    I get less than $400 a month.

    And I have to jump through hoops, and keep filling out countless forms to keep getting that.
    And go to meet some poor woman at Social Services, who makes sure that I'm not taking advantage of the system - like less than $400 a month is going to lead me into a life of wine, women, and song - and coke.

    And then, still more countless forms for my Mom and me to get the $16 p/mo in Food Stam... er.!. uhm... no, you can't call it that anymore, either... it's now, SNAP benefits - FOR THE TWO OF US!
    $16 a month, for TWO people!

    Mind you, I ain't complainin'!
    A little under $400 a month ain't nothin' to sneeze at. And the $16 pays for a month's worth of milk and eggs - or, almost...

    But, neither does it purchase many Caddies, T-bones, lobster, or malt-liquor!

    America's Conservatives as nucking futs!!!!!!!!!

  • roshan on April 08, 2013 4:49 PM:

    " That’s an entirely separate issue from claims that standards of eligibility are being deliberately relaxed because we don’t know what else to do with these folks. "

    Really? Is this how we talk about people now? "What else to do with these folks"..... REALLY?

    Yes, there might be deadbeats in there collecting disability but even then I wouldn't want to talk in terms of having absolute power over their fate. It's really very demeaning to the human existence if we lose all shred of our empathy for our fellow humans, even the deadbeats. If you can't display empathy for these people then at least don't assume that we can do anything we want with them. They are here on earth and are within our society. The able-bodied and the sound of mind are not the rulers of anyone.

  • MikeH on April 08, 2013 5:25 PM:

    I'm a 59-year-old IT professional, in the Web design/programming/management track. I broke my back in a skydiving accident 22 years ago and have had 3 fusions and multiple cortisone shots and blocks. I could easily qualify for disability if I needed to, but because I've been able to stay employed in an industry that doesn't require much physical effort, I haven't needed to. But, at my age now, if I were laid off it would be virtually impossible for me to find a job. A few years ago, our company had some financial issues and I did some job-hunting and no one is interested in hiring a 55+ Web anything. So, under those circumstances I'd probably go for a disability pension. Would I be cheating the system? I've got rods, screws, and scars from my neck to my lumbar disks, and I stay functioning through the use of cortisone and percocet.

    As Kevin wrote, there are probably a lot of people like me who'd much rather earn a living than collect disability, but in the right situation could and would do so.

  • thebewilderness on April 08, 2013 5:27 PM:

    It seems to me that for many of us who ended up on disability the problem was the inability to afford health care. Many people would have been able to continue in the work force had they been able to get treatment for health problems that become disabilities when left untreated for too long.

  • g on April 08, 2013 5:54 PM:

    I'm 58 and I'm going to be laid off at the end of June due to a company re-org - 22 of us are losing their jobs. I learned about it a year ago, and began job-hunting immediately. I have had exactly three interviews. I can't even get called back for jobs that pay 1/2 of what I'm making now.

    I don't really have any disability issues, but I can tell you that if I had to take a job where I was on my feet all day, I sure would start to have them, with my arthritis.

    What the NPR story included, that many who demonize these workers don't, is the fact that in many locales, there are no desk jobs available - the only jobs available for people are jobs that create further injury or inflict pain.

    I'm still hoping, and I live in an area where there are a lot of opportunities, but it has been discouraging.

  • emjayay on April 08, 2013 6:14 PM:

    It's not much, but in British supermarkets the cashiers sit on something like tall office chairs. Must be that socialism stuff or something. Doing that would create at least a few sitting down jobs other than the lady working in the SS office. (reference to the NPR piece).

    And according to that piece, SS disability is around $1K a month plus health insurance. MedicAid or Medicare?

  • emjayay on April 08, 2013 6:22 PM:

    golack, I'm sure those Republican governors that hire companies to get their state welfare recipients offloaded onto SS disability not only tout their fiscal responsibility but at the same time complain about the oppressive intrusive too big deficit ridden high tax federal government.

  • Blue Girl on April 08, 2013 6:33 PM:

    On the night of October 3 of last year I had a headache that I blamed on President Obama's lousy performance in the first debate. I took some Tylenol PM and got some sleep, but still had the headache the next morning. I was supposed to have a mammogram that afternoon, and told my husband as he was leaving for school that I was going to blow off my classes that day and if I still had the headache that afternoon, I was going to go up to the Women's Medicine clinic and ask my friend who is a nurse there to give me a Toradol shot.

    I didn't make it that far -- an hour later I was waking up in a pool of blood on my bathroom floor. The last thing I remember before losing consciousness and going face down on the tile is a feeling like I was being "lit up" all over my body and thinking "what is happening to me?"

    When I woke up, I assessed myself -- all my digits moved but my left leg was weak. I looked in the mirror and saw that my mouth was a mess and I had a gash on my chin. I called 911 and told the operator that I thought I had suffered a stroke. Within minutes my apartment was swarming with paramedics and firefighters and I was transported to my hospital of preference. A CAT scan showed a sub-arachnoid bleed and I was transported by ambulance to the hospital in my area that has the best outcomes and the Stroke and Neuro Research Institute.

    I was admitted to the Neuro ICU and spent 22 days there, and had a stroke during the repair of the Vertebral Aneurysm that wasn't seen until the second angio.

    I have been navigating the system and trying to get SSI ever since, and I'm about to give up. They have demanded everything from a copy of my marriage license (the feds know we're married and have been for 30 years, since my husband is a military retiree and he has gotten the dependent allowance for me all that time) to our bank statements for all of 2012 and 2013 to date, to our tax returns for the previous two years. Every time a new month starts, they come back and say they need the previous month's bank statement before they can make a ruling -- I send it to them and then they come back the 2nd or 3rd of the next month and say the need the month that just ended.

    It's a fucking nightmare, and if I was entirely without resources, I would be homeless by now. I don't understand how anyone can get over on the system. I can no longer do the job I was trained for, and our savings -- thankfully we had some -- is rapidly being depleted. Of course, I haven't been getting assistance from one of those companies that advertises on daytime teevee, I'm getting help with the process from a reputable non-profit that has an office in the hospital that treated me.

    A final coda -- I have had a remarkable recovery, the deficits I had in November and December are almost completely gone and the joke around our house is that they won't make a decision until I don't need it anymore...a distinct possibility that I shall be eternally grateful for.

  • paul on April 08, 2013 9:38 PM:

    It's a sign of how much republicans hate working-class people that they always look at people on disability and think "taker" or "cheat", and then in the next breath look at the people who continue to work with bum knees, crippled backs, scarred lungs, twisted hands and think "sucker".

  • Bernard on April 08, 2013 11:29 PM:

    yes a wonderful Republican execution of "Attack the weak and unfortunate/non-rich." works every time. the middle class or what's left of it, is very scared of being like "these" throwaways in society.

    the Republican way works every time. not surprised at all. and to see the hate coming out for those less fortunate, so very Christian of these "kind." lol

    be afraid Middle Class, be very afraid. The Republicans are after you and have been for a long time, now. you voted Republican for over 40 years now, and presto, this is what you get.

  • c u n d gulag on April 09, 2013 7:03 AM:

    Blue Girl,
    I had no idea you'd had a stroke!

    Thank goodness you've recovered.

  • timb on April 09, 2013 3:03 PM:


    "You need one of those advocate lawyer guys that get everyone on SS disability. I'm guessing they recommend cooperative doctors."

    As one of those advocate lawyers, let me assure you not only do not have "cooperative" doctors, the second we did, the Judges would refuse to listen to anything we say.

    Unlike, Ms. Joffe-Walt's report implied, my clients lose hearings every day when their doctor claimed they could not do anything.

    Her report was crap, as these former Commissioners of SSA (remember the agency she reported on but never asked a question of?) http://c-c-d.org/task_forces/social_sec/Joint%20_Commissioners_Ltr-%204-4-13.pdf