Tag Archives: welfare

Good morning you loser piece of dung, good-for-nothing, fraudulent drain on society … how may I help you?

bigstock-Not-Again--353104I subscribe to a Google News clipping service that delivers to my inbox every story in which the words “Social Security disability” appear.  I torture myself by reading them.

Reading them, I am engulfed in a fury that exhausts me.  Where do you start?  Do you dismantle point-by-point?  Do you indulge yourself venting spleen?   Do you cry?

Usually I just shake it off, put a smile on my face, and get back to work … good morning you loser piece of dung, good-for-nothing, fraudulent drain on society … how may I help you?  Yes, yes, I’m the money-grubbing attorney you’ve been reading about in the news!  Let’s get to work!”

Sometimes I can’t finish an article, even a short one, in one sitting because it’s so full of misinformation and mischaracterizations, and stereotypes – of disabled people, of the attorneys who help them, and of the Social Security workers and Administrative Law Judges who are tasked with trying to figure out if claimants meet Social Security’s legal definition of “disability.”

Reading these articles  I just want to … I don’t know what … … blog?   Throw Mason jars at a Empty Broken Glass Jarconcrete wall in my basement?  (These can be purchased for almost nothing at garage sales.  But … wear goggles.)

It appears members of the press breeze in for a short bit, upchuck a thousand unconsidered words, and congratulate themselves for really getting the nuances of disabled peoples’ lives, the complicated Social Security disability programs, and the complexities of how  society – including families – are affected by people who are too sick or injured to provide for themselves financially.

It is clear that journalists who write about Social Security’s disability programs do so without actually reading any of the statute, the regulations, not even the manageably-short decisions written by Social Security judges – most of which are under fifteen pages.   They’re like savants … they just know … without doing any of the hard work.

I Dont CareOh … was that a stereotypic description of the press as incompetent know-nothings who fail to do their jobs adequately and don’t bat an eyelash at leaving an enormous amount of hardship for vulnerable people in their wake?   Yes.  You’re right.  I’m sorry.  That must be rough.  Here, let me fix it:  I once read an article written by a decent journalist who did some actual work.  There.  Both sides of the story.  Fair and balanced.  Better?  If not, console yourself with the fact that you have a place to sleep tonight – unlike a lot of the disabled people about whom you write.

I’ve been representing disabled people for fourteen years – and before that I was a sign language interpreter for eight – so my brain doesn’t even have the capacity to conjure up a stereotype of ‘disabled person.’   I have known literally hundreds of disabled people.  When I read the stereotypes, it is made to seem so tidy and simple.   But it’s not.  There is not a simple mold … disabled people are just like … people.   Complex and varied.

The problem with doing battle on the turf laid by the rampant shoddy journalism which so offhandedly calls down from central casting a stereotype of a deadbeat, loser, good-for-nothing, fraudulent drain on society, and calls him “disabled” or calls him “entitled” – their stereotype is largely an indefensible person – a straw man.   And, that’s the battleground upon which we fight.   That’s the frame.

There we are – trying to have a conversation where the folks who have little information other Tug of war, isolated on whitethan what they read in the press have it all figured out.   And the folks who do know a great deal about the complexities of the world of disabled people, and their families, and the Social Security Administration’s massively valuable programs, and how efficiently they are run … sputter in utter frustration … and get back to work.

Flimsy journalism runs the table.  But the issues are too important to allow that.



Yippee! The gu’ment’s givin’ away free cheese!

Happy cartoon cheese manI recall an episode of Roseanne, in which Dan loses his job, and Roseanne is worried.  Dan’s trying to keep her from freaking out, and says, ‘don’t worry, baby.’   Roseanne asks, ‘so … ‘don’t worry’, like you’ve got another job? or … ‘don’t worry … the government’s giving away free cheese?’

Don’t worry, the government’s giving away free cheese.    Yes, Roseanne, proceed to freaking out.   Freaking out is warranted.

There is no greater cause for worry than knowing your basic subsistence is not under your own control, but that you are at the whim of a huge bureaucracy for which you Take a number - ticket dispenserare … a number.   A suspicious, conniving little number.

The Social Security Administration administers extremely important programs.   Generally it does a pretty good job of it, but the process is extremely difficult, time-consuming, and intrusive for the people going through it.

When a person is unable to work, unable to support him or herself, the wait is interminable.   Often in the range of two to three years – and that is an optimistic timeline.  That is the timeline when a claimant is granted benefits on the first application and winning at the Administrative Hearing level.

The wait could be much, much longer if a person loses and has to appeal to the Appeals Council, and then to federal court.   The length of time for those types of cases is difficult to estimate.

And the time … it’s not easy time.   My observations of the people going through this system are that they are seriously suffering.   And the people at Social Security can get pretty impatient with claimants.   They can be pretty terse, impatient and grumpy.

It’s a bit like … well, you’ve had the pleasure of visiting your state’s DMV – you know what I’m talking about.    Doing time at the DMV makes for excellent stand-up fodder, right?   There is a funny little website called DMV America with a post there called Growing Old At The DMV that makes the point.

But imagine you’re not going to the DMV to get your driver’s license renewed, or plates for your car, but you’re going because you need to have your basic, essential needs met:  food … shelter ….   The Disability DMV is what stands between you and sleeping on a park bench.

group of people waiting in line, back viewThe wait will not be a morning, will not extend into a tedious afternoon – it will be years – sometimes years and … years and … years.  During which time you will be cast about on an indescribably tumultuous sea of poverty and uncertainty.  You will be on the begging end of every relationship in your life.  You are likely to lose everything – your home, your pride … your children.

When it’s your turn at the Disability DMV, you’ll be given forms to fill out on which you must tell the Social Security Administration what exactly is wrong with you – under penalty of perjury.

Have you ever had to tell someone exactly what is wrong with you?  Have you ever had to Blamewrite it down?  

Not only do I avoid telling someone what is wrong with me, I generally avoid even thinking about what is wrong with me.  It is painful.  And sharing your foibles and vulnerabilities is … intimate.  But in the context of an application for Social Security disability benefits, you are having that intimacy with a bureaucracy.

When you’re a claimant of disability benefits you will be asked to …

    • describe what you do from the time you wake up until going to bed;
    • reveal who you live with;
    • explain whether you care for anyone, such as spouses, children, or pets;
    • explain whether you are being cared for by others, and if so, how;
    • reveal whether you can read, write, do simple math, drive a car;
    • describe the problems you have dressing, bathing, or feeding yourself, if any;
    • describe the problems you have using the toilet, if any;
    • reveal if you are incontinent, and if so how often;
    • describe your ability to prepare your own meals, and if so, what kinds of meals do you prepare, are you cooking full meals, or just microwaving prepared foods;
    • reveal whether you are able to go out alone, or whether you need to be accompanied;
    • Man Looking through Magnifying Glassreveal whether you are able to do your own shopping, and if so, what do you shop for;
    • reveal whether you are able to manage your own bank accounts, handle money, count money;
    • disclose whether you are able to get along with others, or if you get into arguments;
    • inform Social Security about your social life;
    • describe difficulties you have paying attention, taking instructions, following a recipe, getting along with authority figures;
    • reveal whether you’ve ever been fired, and if so, why;
    • describe whether you are able to handle stress, or if you tend to meltdown;
    • describe unusual behaviors, fears, quirks, kinks;
    • reveal all of your medications, and medical aids, devices, diapers – and describe why you need them;
    • reveal all of the names and contact information for any of your physicians, hospitals, clinics, counselors, and therapists;
    • provide Social Security with signed Authorizations to release all medical Information, educational records, and employment records

bigstock-Lady-Makes-Loser-Sign-23993312Then, you will be asked for the name and contact information of a third-party – someone who knows you well – and that person will be asked to complete an eight-page “Third Party Function Report” on which he or she will be asked to weigh in on how he or she thinks you’re Larry McLoser.

It is a truly awful process for people  …  utterly humiliating.

I do not fault Social Security for asking these questions.   Of course not.   They must.

If a person can balance a checkbook, follow a recipe, stand at a stove for an hour cooking, read, write, walk a mile, has a rollicking social life, and can get along with authority figures with aplomb … there are likely plenty of jobs for that person.  And, they should (and will) be denied disability benefits.  They simply have too much functionality – they are not disabled – no matter their diagnoses.  That is not my point.

Crap Idea Concept On Led BoardMy point is that I’ve only barely gotten started describing what is required of claimants for Social Security disability benefits.  Geeze, I’ve only discussed the application so far, and … doesn’t this seem like a really bad idea for a scam?   Can you see that?  It’s ludicrous to think that most folks go through all of this as a scam.  That’s my point.

Wouldn’t it be a heckuva lot easier just to get, and keep, a job?  Wouldn’t it be better to receive a paycheck that is so much greater than you could possibly receive in disability benefits?  Wouldn’t it be a heckuva lot easier just to haul off to work like the rest of us, and be able to keep your home, and your car, and your dog, and your kids, and your pride?  Wouldn’t it be a heckuva lot easier to work, and be able to walk into a store with your head held high and purchase groceries?

Yes, of course!  Anyone in his or her right mind would do it.  The people who don’t … can’t.   They have no other options.

You may not understand that to be true, and they may not be willing to give you every detail of American Nickelstheir medical history that would convince you that it is true.   But it is true.   They have no other options.

If I had a nickel for every time a client sobbed, “I’d give anything just to be able to work!”  … I’d have a boat somewhere sinking from the weight of all those nickels.


Why You Don’t Invite Actuaries Into Your Angry Mob

Most reporting on Social Security’s disability programs provides more opinion than fact, more heat than light.  Let us … walk into the light … into the numbers, the demographics, the economics … into … actuarial science.

Stephen C. Goss is the Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration – the actual number cruncher for Social Security.  On March 14, 2013, he testified before the House of Representative Ways and Means Committee’s Subcommittee on Social Security regarding the Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits program.  Mr. Goss testified on several topics including the “drivers” of increasing costs over the past several decades, and the projected financial status of the Disability Insurance Trust Fund into the future – two topics causing a great deal of heat in the press, and, anxiety in the public.

It’s important to note that way back in 1995 the Social Security Administration’s Office of Chief Actuary estimated that the Social Security Disability Insurance program would be solvent through 2016.  And they were right on the money – to the year.  The Office of Chief Actuary knows what it’s talking about.

Mr. Goss documented that indeed, the number of disabled worker beneficiaries increased from 2.86 million in 1980 to 8.20 million in 2010 – an increase of 187%.

What?!?!  187%?!?!  That’s a huge number!   Everybody freak out!    Run around screaming … … banging pots and pans!  FRAUD!  FRAUD!  Judges are too lax!!!   Flap your arms!  Danger Will Robinson!  Danger!

But, that boring Mr. Goss ruined all the fun.  Just like an … actuary.   He went on to explain the bigstock-Accountant-With-Abacus-37671250tedious factors contributing to the increase in disabled beneficiaries – things like a 41% increase in the total population; a marked increase of women in the workforce who pay Social Security payroll taxes who are “insured” for disability benefits; that huge swell of Baby Boomers getting older, and developing disabling health conditions, and the recession.  That’s why you don’t invite actuaries into your angry mob.

In a recent article by Eric Boehm published in the PA Independent, Expert:  Social Security disability program ‘backdoor welfare,‘ and cited in several other articles around the country, Tad DeHaven of the libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute is quoted as saying that “he’s never seen [a government program] as ill-defined and exploited” as the Social Security disability trust fund and that “[i]t is so obviously abused.”   But, Mr. DeHaven gives no objective information in support of that conclusion; nothing with which the reader might also draw the same conclusion.  It is also not clear under what criteria Mr. DeHaven is deemed an “expert.”   No light.  Just heat – definitely heat.

I spare a thought for journalists working under pressure of deadline attempting to write about terribly complicated, dicey, and consequential programs.  The information is extremely complex – Mr. Goss’ testimony before the Social Security subcommittee was replete with charts and graphs, facts, and figures, relying on statistical analyses that are beyond the mere mortal.  It’s cumbersome and tedious, but it’s important to get it right.

Mr. Goss counsels that demographic changes, principally the drop in the birth rate after the Baby Boom, has increased the cost of the Disability Insurance Benefits program as a percent of taxable payroll (and as a percent of Gross Domestic Product).  While testifying, he went on to explain that the trends have stabilized, or are expected to do so in the future.  He acknowledged that projections of the numbers of Disability Insurance beneficiaries will increase, but at the same rate as the rate of workers, and so the projections are for stability in the future.

More light, less heat.


The Shame of Disability

The process of obtaining Social Security disablity benefits is soul-depleting.

To be awarded disability benefits, claimants must disclose their entire medical file to the Social Security Administration, and must prove an inability to perform any job whatsoever on a sustained basis, in a competitive workplace, no matter how simple and undemanding the job might be.  Moreover, this impairment-related inability must have lasted at least one year.

Most people find the process positively humiliating.  It is demeaning to Unhappy Woman Hiding Her Face With Hand On Itstand before a court and admit that you are, in the words of a client, “a huge loser.”  The process affords little opportunity to save face.

The vast majority of claimants come to the process after having tried absolutely everything to avoid it.  Many have exhausted their sick leave, their savings and retirement accounts, and the good will and charity of their families before even making the application.  And, after having put off making the application for as long as possible, they discover the process can take many, many years before they are granted benefits – if granted benefits at all.

Having delayed applying until already financially depleted, claimants court homelessness, and often become homeless.  They “couch surf” with friends and relatives, straining those relationships often beyond repair.  The most fortunate of claimants wind up in thrown-together apartments in the basements, or garages, of friends or family.  When someone has no family, they fare much, much worse.

One client without the benefit of a family to take her in, lived “down by the river.”  She came to me bigstock-old-broken-bike-26064467excited one day because she had found an old bike frame thrown out, and she had dragged her sleeping mat onto it so that the mat was off the ground and didn’t draw up moisture.  I couldn’t imagine how uncomfortable it would be to sleep on top of a bike frame, but for her it was a home improvement that delighted!

For all the years I have observed people trying to keep body and soul together while waiting for a favorable resolution to a disability case, I have yet to understand how they live on absolutely no money at all – sometimes for two, three, five … years.  They ask, “what am I going to do?”  I have no answer.

There seem to be different strategies for managing pennilessness, depending on how well-off one is to start.  Once any savings are drained, the retirement funds go next, then selling automobiles, furniture, personal effects, usually selling the family home, or losing it to foreclosure, borrowing from family-members, and friends, moving in with relatives, applying for food stamps, for Unemployment Benefits, going to food pantries, sleeping in parks, knocking on the doors of churches ….

It is humiliating.bigstock-Woman-Depressed-Series-27253388

This is the reality of disabilty.

The myth of disability is that it is easy to obtain, and rife with mildly-impaired scammers.  For that myth to persist, one cannot know how long it takes to get disability, the personal information you have to divulge to the Social Security Administration, how hard it is to prove, and how absolutely difficult life is for the years during which a case is pending.  Also, for the myth to persist, one cannot realize how little the financial gain is on the other end.

Claimants insist to me they are not “one of those scammers,” but, in fact, “really need this.”  The need to differentiate themselves from the negative mythos of disability is very real.

stop pretending and faking. Face reality or truth and stop telliDespite the fact that disabled people want others to conclude they’re not “one of those scammers,” they will not fully divulge the medical problems, and functional deficits they have that cause them to need disability benefits.   They minimize their diagnoses, symptomology, and functional deficits because … it’s fantastically embarrassing not to do so.

Wouldn’t you do the same … if I were to ask you, “what’s wrong with you?”

It is nearly impossible to save face in the process of proving disability, but people naturally try to save face as much as possible outside of the official process – in what they say to friends, neighbors, even their doctors … and definitely reporters.

A National Public Radio / Planet Money story done by Chana Joffe-Walt Portrait of a school teacher sitting at a desk with a blackboardairing in March of 2013 on All Things Considered and This American Life missed this fact about human nature.  Ms. Joffe-Walt took as fact things said as if their being said made them true.  She failed to burrow down into the facts, even by doing something as basic as reading an actual decision or two written by Social Security judges, to make sure that what she was reporting was the truth.

Ms. Joffe-Walt interviewed a retired judge, Sonny Ryan (not a Social Security Administrative Law Judge) who said he’d asked a man in his courtroom why he was on disability.  The man claimed he was on disability for high blood pressure and diabetes.  Ms. Joffe-Walt, just left it there – as though it was true … that a man was receiving Social Security disability benefits only for hypertension and diabetes.  It must be true – a former judge seemed satisfied with the answer, right?  I guess that’s why Ms. Joffe-Walt didn’t find the actual man, read his favorable decision, to see if it was actually true.  If she had, she would have learned that he was not receiving disability benefits for hypertension and diabetes.  There’s no way he was on for hypertension and diabetes.  I will grant that he likely said he was on for hypertension and diabetes … but he was not.  I would bet the title of my truck on it.

bigstock-Portrait-of-funny-surprised-wo-36732706Instead of journalism about the disability program, and the people receiving disability benefits, the listeners of Planet Money, All Things Considered and This American Life got mere speculation … gossip really, cocktail-party banter – misleading and inaccurate – in a week-long, long-form series, no less.  National Public Radio has not retracted the story, nor aired anything on the subject more thoroughly investigated.

It is common for disabled people when asked why they are on disability to reveal only the least embarrassing ailments to explain it.  So the explanation is about the bad back, the bum knee, the diabetes, the hypertension, but carefully excludes the truth of the cognitive impairment, the severe fecal incontinence resulting from a prior bowel resection, or the debilitating panic disorder.

I once represented a person who was mildly mentally retarded, and had an anxiety disorder – likely from being relentlessly bullied while in school for being “slow.”  Despite those challenges, she had an impressive work history having worked for decades as a cook, a job that required frequent heavy lifting of water-filled pots.  She suffered a serious crush-injury to a hand that required numerous surgeries.  At the end of all the surgeries, and rehab, the hand remained functionally inadequate to the task of lifting water-filled pots; she was unable to do her past jobs.  Then, in middle age, and with significant cognitive deficits, she was unable to transition to sedentary work.  After two failed applications for disability benefits, and several years of trying, she was finally found disabled, and granted benefits.  She was finally, and mercifully, off the streets and safe.

If you were to ask this person the reason for being on disability, she would tell you it was her hand.  And she would be wrong.  The injury to her hand alone is not disabling.  The mental retardation alone is not disabling.  But, in combination, these things were disabling.

But in the telling of her story, she would have left out the detail about the cognitive impairment.Old School Myths  In fact, she would do everything in her power not to reveal that to people – naturally.  She told me, “I keep my head down.”

The Chana Joffe-Walt’s of the world, and presumably her listeners, would hear that this woman was disabled merely because of an injured hand, and would think the injury did not warrant disability benefits.  And they would be right.

And without any further inquiry into whether that was the whole story  … the myth … would persist.



An Orientation to Social Security Disability Programs – Part II

bigstock-Urban-Poverty-42792958Social Security’s second disability program is “Supplemental Security Income.”  Supplemental Security Income is almost universally called “SSI.”

SSI is a poverty program.  To receive SSI, you must show that you are “disabled,” but also that you are “poor,” as defined by Social Security.  It is exclusively for people who are both disabled and poor.

To determine whether a person is poor enough for SSI, Social Security looks at “resources” (or assets), and income (earned and/or unearned).

A potential SSI recipient cannot have more than $ 2,000.00 in personal resources and still receive SSI.  Period.  This is a hard-line rule.  It does not matter how severe the disability is, or how hard-luck the story, a person with $ 2,000.00 or more in assets is simply too wealthy to receive SSI.

Resources are cash, bank accounts, stocks, bonds, certificates of deposit, life insurance with a cash-surrender value, personal property, automobiles (apart from one you need for transportation) and real property that the disabled person does not live in.

Resources is an all-or-nothing proposition.  If you have over $ 2,000.00 in resources you get no SSI whatsoever.  Period.

To illustrate the point from real life, I once had a client who was 52 years of age, mentally retarded, and had a severe heart condition.  This client had never been able to live independently, had always lived with parents, and had never been able to work.  When the client was an infant, the client’s father had purchased a life insurance policy with a cash surrender value of over $ 2,000.00.  The policy was just sitting there, but made the client “over resource” and therefore, ineligible for SSI benefits.

The inquiry about income is not as cut and dried as the all-or-nothing proposition of resources.  Income does not necessarily preclude receipt of SSI benefits, but having any will almost always cut the benefit amount.  The SSI benefit is cut based on the amount of income and the type of income, that is, whether it is earned income or unearned income, or “in-kind” support, such as being allowed to live in a relative’s home rent free.

To determine how reductions in SSI benefits are calculated, let’s start with the full SSI benefit before reductions – $ 710.00 per month.  This is the most an SSI recipient can receive in 2013.  SSI recipients cannot request a higher benefit amount based on financial hardship or severity of a disability.

Social Security reduces SSI benefits for unearned income by subtracting $ 1.00 for every $ 1.00 received from any other source – after the first $ 20.00.  Social Security will not reduce the benefit for just $ 20.00 received from an outside source in a given month, but after that first $ 20.00, the benefit is reduced dollar-for-dollar.  The thinking is that if a disabled and impoverished person has other support, such as from family, then the SSI program, and therefore taxpayers, do not have to provide it.

So, if an SSI recipient is given $ 100.00 for his or her birthday, Social Security would reduce the SSI benefit for that month by $ 80.00.  ($ 100.00 – $ 20.00 = a reduction of $ 80.00.)

The formula for calculating reductions of SSI benefits when the income is earned, i.e., as the result of work activity, is a tad more complicated, and is designed to incentivize working.  The hope is that the disabled person could find his or her way into the world of work, and into financial self-sufficiency.

For earned income, the first $ 85.00 of gross wages (not take-home pay) is exempt.  But, after that, Social Security subtracts .50 cents for every $ 1.00 of gross wages earned from the benefit.  The rule is : 50% reduction of SSI for earned income, after the first $ 85.00 of gross wages.

So, if an SSI recipient earns $ 100.00 (gross), Social Security would reduce the SSI benefit for that month by $ 7.50.  ($ 100.00 – $ 85.00 = $ 15.00, divided in half = $ 7.50.)

The formulation for earned income incentivizes work, gently pulling the support away from the disabled person as their earning power increases.

But, it is fraught with cumbersome requirements that disabled SSI recipients report their earnings to Social Security monthly – which creates headaches for SSI recipients, and for the Social Security workers who must recalculate benefits monthly based on the fluctuating monthly earnings of SSI recipients who are attempting to work.  Many believe that Social Security is automatically notified of workers’ earnings because Social Security payroll taxes are being withheld, but that is not true.

SSI recipients must also report to Social Security any changes in their living circumstances or marital status because those events could change the amount of the SSI benefit properly to be received.  For example, if an SSI recipient were to marry and the spouse was working, the SSI benefit would be reduced based on the spouse’s income.

Living on even the full SSI benefit amount of $ 710.00 per month is difficult, and many SSI recipients live on reduced amounts.  Furthermore, SSI benefits do not have Medicare health insurance coverage.  So, not only are recipients of SSI surviving on a very thin, fixed income, they do not have health insurance through Social Security.  It is not an easy life.

In my experience, recipients of SSI are grateful for the basic support it provides, but by no means would choose it if they were able to work.  Life on SSI is not an enviable life.  It is an impoverished, difficult life – not in the least enviable.  The idea that people are clamoring for this modest benefit, and willing to commit fraud for its acquisition is not borne out in reality.