Don’t be deceived by Chana Jaffe-Walt’s This American Life / Planet Money piece on Federal Disability
Addendum (3/25/13): Since this was posted two days ago, someone at TAL / PM has made changes to the web supplement. An original version of the story that circulated on the TAL website can be found here. Two instances of the changes are pointed out here and here.
This American Life and Planet Money are two very trusted brands on public radio. On a standard Saturday afternoon, you’ll find me nursing a post-dim sum food coma and folding laundry listening to Ira Glass and friends. I looked to Planet Money to break down the subprime crisis for me into easily digestible nuggets. And I’ve opened my wallet for $10 donations to fund the TAL podcast.
It’s with this sense of trust, that I must now turn to Chana Joffe-Walt’s biased take down of SSDI and SSI for This American Life and Planet money. I read it on my commute to work yesterday at a non-profit that focuses on helping very sick adults with HIV and/or mental health issues obtain access to these benefits. This is a very difficult job and my compensation is pocket change compared to my old big firm law gig, but it’s rewarding in other ways. I’m part of a web of social workers, doctors, nurses, and case managers trying to stabilize the most vulnerable members of our community. My clients do not want to be disabled. Many want to work and work up to the point when their symptoms become too severe for them to continue. The SSA is a bureaucracy, and sometimes, analysts there will miss or ignore key medical evidence, and an appeal can delay a client’s benefits for 3 or 4 years, depending on how many levels of appeal are necessary. Helping these clients get onto SSI/SSDI serves a public health purpose because once they are on benefits, they can work on stabilizing their health and gain access to affordable housing programs. Almost any public interest attorney in my area could tell you what I’m saying in this paragraph (and most people who apply for these benefits, if they are lucky enough to have an attorney at all, rely on public interest attorneys, not private firms). Although Ms. Joffe-Walt said that she’s researched this issue for “6 months” there’s not a quote or a data point from a single public interest / legal aid attorney anywhere in her piece.
A have a lot of little nits to pick with Ms. Joffe-Walt’s print story, but one of the things that irks me the most is the deceptive beauty of its design and layout. “It’s just so pretty, it must be true!” is one of the easy takeaways the standard TAL audience can have from scanning through this piece. It’s so convincing in its simplicity, that I’m worried that the parts of TAL – Planet Money audience who work with my clients will be more hesitant to write letters of support for my clients because they will be too worried about the growth of disability programs in the U.S. As Jeff Deeney pointed out on Twitter, “@planetmoney @itschana Getting benefits for severely mentally ill clients who can’t apply themselves is really hard. You aren’t helping us.”
The most infuriating thing is how Ms. Joffe-Walt groups in the entire 14 million people on SSDI/SSI benefits into one giant, tax dollar sucking mass. She gives them an agency that they do not have. As another person (sorry, I forgot who) pointed out, she writes the following:
But going on disability means you will not work, you will not get a raise, you will not get whatever meaning people get from work. Going on disability means, assuming you rely only on those disability payments, you will be poor for the rest of your life. That’s the deal. And it’s a deal 14 million Americans have chosen for themselves. (Emphasis added). [See addendum above this language been subsequently edited by TAL / PM / HJW].
While there are a few bad apples who are gaming the system out there, the vast majority of the 14 million people receiving these benefits are legitimately disabled and cannot work. Some are dying from fast-advancing cancer. My very own younger sister, who is in her 30’s, receives these benefits because her cognitive age is 2-years-old. 2-years-old! There is no way that she can ever work, let alone be left by herself for a single moment of the day. But because of sloppy and biased reporting like Ms. Joffe-Walt’s (and Fox News), there are members of my extended family who look at my sister as a horrible tax burden on society, rather than as a vulnerable person who cannot fend for herself. My sister did not choose to be born with this brain damage. My clients do not choose to be sick. The agency that Ms. Joffe-Walt ascribes to this group further magnifies the extreme stigma people with disabilities already face.
While my practice does not include children who receive SSI, parents of children with disabilities have an incredibly difficult time obtaining these services. Part of my motivation to practice this area of law stemmed from my single mother’s experience. She struggled to raise us, and my sister did not obtain SSI until she was an adult. My sister never received her rightful childhood benefits because no social worker or lawyer ever guided my mother in that direction when my sister was still a minor. My mother did not know these benefits even existed. This story is much more common than the anecdotes fed to us by Ms. Jaffe-Walt. And Media Matters has done an excellent, detailed debunking of the other Child SSI benefit “facts” in Ms. Jaffe-Walt’s piece.
Also, the disabled in America are one of the most stepped upon groups in our society, and do not make up a nefarious “disability-industrial complex.” There isn’t a strong lobby for parents of disabled children. Every year, there are budgetary fights over cuts to essential programs that help keep disabled people in their homes, instead of ending up in institutions. And the real travesty of SSI is that the resource cap to receive SSI has been set at $2000 for an individual since 1989, and has not been raised or adjusted for inflation since that time. That means that someone on SSI must live a perilous existence, without even the ability to have an emergency fund or to save up enough money for an apartment deposit. They are forced to live check-to-check due to these extremely low resource limits.
Finally, I work in direct services, not public policy in this area, so I will point you to the policy-oriented discussion on this story taking shape on Rebecca Vallas’s Twitter stream. I realize that Twitter is ephemeral, so here are a few tweets to archive on this topic.
I was born and raised in SF, and with the exception of my academic exile on the East Coast, and the past 9 months down in the foggy D.C., I’ve always lived in SF.* During and after law school, I’ve toyed with the idea of moving to Brooklyn West, since it’s sunnier there and the real estate is shiny and a few hundred thousand dollars less than San Francisco. My friends there are cool and open-minded, and generally politically and socially engaged. Plus, there’s stuff going on over there, unlike the sterile strip malls and quaint small towns of the South Bay, or the sleepy homogeneity of Marin. Before this week, the three things that held me back were:
1. Fear of earthquakes. I constantly ask which is scarier, being in the Transbay Tube or on the Bay Bridge when the Big One hits, and both options terrify me equally.
2. Fear of crime / lack of policing to deter crime. I’m not sure that I feel comfortable living in a place where the Police Department doesn’t investigate property crimes. You’re house got burgled? You got mugged? Tough luck!
3. I don’t really drive, and BART doesn’t run late enough. I’d hate to constantly look at my watch at a Fillmore concert to make sure that I made my last BART train home.
But the brutality of the police response to Occupy Oakland this week has sorta sealed the deal against me moving to Oakland. When a City Administrator can issue orders for brute force to be used on peaceful protesters, something is wrong. When the Mayor, Jean Quan, can claim ignorance to the plans to raid Occupy Oakland, something is very very wrong. Between the Oscar Grant protests and now this, my dominant image of Oakland isn’t of art crawls or Children’s Fairyland, but of police in riot gear and people in wheelchairs being tear-gassed, and that’s not the type of city where I want to live. And my head has been trying to tabulate how much of the City’s budget is going to pay out settlements for police brutality related to this week’s clearance of Occupy Oakland.
A huge part of me is trying to understand how the City of Oakland, which prides itself on incorporating the language of social justice and addressing inequality, had one of the most violent reactions (that I know of) to the Occupy movement. I know part of this is rooted in the OPD’s sense of impunity and their past scandals, but until there is some progress on this front, Oakland goes onto the “places where I won’t live” list. I’m not sure how much the Planning and Police Departments talk to each other, but the image of a police department is key to attracting new residents to a city. A police department that terrorizes residents, instead of doing any actual policing, does all of your realtors a huge disservice.
*This is a total aside, but in case you didn’t know already, I’m moving back to SF next week.
One of my law school section-mates succinctly summed up my feelings about Elizabeth Warren in a Facebook status update:
I love this woman. I know her from law school and I love her. The end.
But one reason why her little video resonates with me so much is that it succinctly explains what I wish I could tell every relative who thinks that the government takes their money without giving them anything back.
A month or so ago, I was engaged in a conversation with an aunt whom I admire, but who is an exec at one of those giant infrastructure and defense companies. She complained about the millions of dollars the government was “throwing away” to protect desert tortoises near a solar project her company was building. She said, “The government has never spent any money on me.”
My jaw dropped. I pointed out that she went to public school and to the UCs. Her kids went to public schools and the UCs. She’s used public transit and the roads. But she was stubborn; she felt that she contributed to her kids schools via the PTA, not through her taxes. And she was angry that she was still paying for other people’s kids to go to school for free. My inability to reason with her, despite my best efforts makes me want to flyer her car (and the cars of my other similarly minded relatives) with the image below.
This photo of Madame Secretary has been circulating and caused some bafflement:
One of my friends explained that Clinton had simply forgotten to take out the clip.
But today, in the WSJ Law Blog, I came across this photo of Ginny Thomas:
Two powerful, middle-aged women isn’t enough to establish a trend, but there is a remarkable similarity to how Secretary of State Clinton and Ms. Thomas are wearing their hair. Clearly, the plastic hairclip transcends partisanship.
So long as California social service cuts translate into the mentally ill being treated solely with meds, or being denied treatment altogether, and MUNI seriously floats the idea of cutting service and increasing fares again, it is hard for me find comfort in Obama’s State of Union. While high speed rail may get the job train moving for parts of California, my resevoir of hope drains out with each bus delay. Empirical evidence shows that once these cuts happen, the services tend not to come back.
If there’s one silver lining, at least, the Obama presidency means that we won’t have a “That’s not true” Alito replacement filling Justice Stevens seat.
Big announcements today, I know, I know, but let me re-wind the media clock back 15 seconds to Haiti.
First, let me point out Rebecca Solnit’s scathing critique on the media’s use of the term “looting” in natural disasters. I think J-schools and newspapers need to bring Solnit in to train their staff on covering disasters, and I second her call, “We need to banish the word ‘looting’ from the English language. It incites madness and obscures realities.” Her core argument is that the word “looting” itself is deadly, since it privileges the value of property above human life and dulls our natural sense of compassion:
And in disaster after disaster, at least since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, those in power, those with guns and the force of law behind them, are too often more concerned for property than human life. In an emergency, people can, and do, die from those priorities. Or they get gunned down for minor thefts or imagined thefts. The media not only endorses such outcomes, but regularly, repeatedly, helps prepare the way for, and then eggs on, such a reaction.
The second bit on Haiti comes from Skip Gates, who traces the poverty there to a series of American (and European) foreign policy decisions made a couple of centuries ago (hat tip to TNC’s post). The American policies that strangled Haiti’s development started with Thomas Jefferson, and appropriately began to change with Abe Lincoln:
By 1804, Jefferson told John Quincy Adams that he was determined to end trade with Haiti. Having helped the Haitians gain their freedom, he then sought to strangle the new-born nation. He sought to quarantine the island and opposed official trade because that would mean recognizing its independence. And that could inspire slave insurrections throughout the American South. The embargo on Haiti remained in force until the spring of 1810; trade fell from $6.7 million in 1806 to $1.5 million in 1808. Non-recognition of the republic remained official American policy until 1862.
Abraham Lincoln signed the bill to recognize Haiti, at long last (and Liberia, too, by the way) in June 1862. The bill passed both houses of Congress only after long and heated debate. James Redpath, the head of the Haitian emigration bureau and an abolitionist, had pressed Massachusetts statesman Charles Sumner to introduce this legislation, for one reason: to encourage the emigration of freed slaves and free blacks to both countries, which remained a dream of Lincoln’s even a month before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
While I learned of Haiti’s early independence and poverty in elementary school, my textbooks left out the bit about Jeffersonian foreign policy.
And now, you can forward your attention span to the next big news story, Obama’s State of the Union (which I am willing to bet will have less than 10 sentences addressing U.S. foreign policy.)
Addendum: Ha, had that last parenthetical said “less than 10 minutes” rather than “less than 10 sentences,” I would have been right:
Mr. Obama spent only nine minutes in an address that lasted more than an hour on foreign policy.
Your presidency turns one-year-old today, and I must say that I agree with Junot Diaz, and implore you to “Start telling us a story.” I read the news, and I think that it’s a shame that I know more about the outfits that your wife wore in the past year than about what you accomplished and stand for.
Now, I’m all for these various things: (1) Investigative journalism (2) into the Bay Bridge (3) brought to you by McSweeney’s, and I’ll probably make my $4.00 donation sometime later today to support this endeavor. I’m also heartened to see the cost of this undertaking (by experienced journalists) quantified at $10,000 (which is about the same price as a small- to medium-sized motion* at a big law firm). However, a small part of me worries about this becoming the model for non-profit-based journalism going forward, where the only stories that get funded are the ones that appeal to the general public. For instance, if I only have $50 to donate per year, this means that I’d only donate to 10 or so stories. While things like the Bay Bridge might grab my money, it makes me wonder if stories about prison violence or the prolonged detention of illegal immigrants would get the light of day, because they may be less compelling. Under our current dying system, I feel that the popular stories subsidize other areas that need a watchdog too, even if there’s less public interest in them.
*A big motion at a big law firm can hit 7 figures easily.
I thought the Presidential campaign was ugly, but the “discourse” surrounding health care reform really depresses me.
This video really forces me to ask, “Who would have thunk it (7 months ago), a nation torn asunder by health care reform, of all things?”
I’m going to keep this short, but I am alarmed that when it comes to female Obama appointees, so much attention is paid to weight. Attention to weight is the new chauvinism.
First, while Obama was looking at SCOTUS noms, some derided one potential nominee, the brilliant, Elena Kagan (whose signature marks my J.D.), and the current nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, for being too fat, under the guise that they would have a shorter life expectancy.
Now, Fox News and the more neutral ABC News are turning the spotlight on Dr. Regina Benjamin, Obana’s Surgeon General pick. The argument? She’s a bad health role model because she’s overweight. The message, “Hey, let’s completely obscure her achievements as a MacArthur Genius grant recipient who founded a medical clinic to serve the rural poor in Louisiana and instead focus on her waistline in judging her ability to promote health.” Is there really nothing baser than calling a woman “fat”?
It’s one thing to promote a standard of beauty that promotes “skinniness” as the ideal for fashion models, it’s another to judge very talented and high-achieving woman who are at the top of their respective fields based on weight. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. The Sarah Palin Runners World spread may be proof enough, that America, like Italy, prefers “hot” female politicians, regardless of experience.