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April 12, 2013 at 6:20 AM

Rising disability rolls reflect bitter reality for rural counties

When time limits and work requirements were mandated by welfare reform, I often heard about long-term welfare recipients seeking to leave the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families for permanent disability status. At the time, I covered poverty in depressed backwoods counties of Northeast Washington, and saw how disability seemed a logical lifeline for some families to reach for.

The state of Washington, seeking to drop its welfare caseloads, greased the transition from TANF to the Supplemental Security Income program. I recall a case worker who spent most of her time on SSI applications. And it has continued being a state focus to shift people out of other programs, including Disability Lifeline, on to SSI.

Some of this is a bureaucratic game: the state pays for part of TANF, but the feds pay for all of disability. But it also reflects chronic problems of so-called “stayers,” people who did not, or could not, make the transition from welfare to work. A Department of Social and Health Services WorkFirst plan in 2011 found that 5 percent of recipients are “stayers.”

For conservatives, it was a perpetuation of the welfare state by another name. For progressives, it reflected the reality of poverty: people are often stuck there because of debilitating physical or mental illness.

Credit: NPR Planet Money

Credit: NPR Planet Money

Either way, it caused a spike in disability caseloads as welfare rolls plunged, as NPR’s Chana Joffe-Walt (a former Seattle public radio reporter) documented in a compelling series. In Alabama, she found a county where one in four working-age adults is on disability. She documented a disability industry to navigate the arduous application process. And she touched on the welfare-to-disability pipeline I saw in the early days of welfare reform.

Liberal economists pounced on some conclusions, but to me it reads as a call for a new era of welfare reform. But if we’re going to overhaul disability, it has to be done thoughtfully and compassionately – neither of which I’d trust Congress to do at the moment.

If people are declared permanently disabled because there simply aren’t enough local jobs – as one doctor she interviewed suggested – that’s a failure of economic policy, especially in rural counties. They deserve better options than a small monthly disability check.

In Pend Oreille County, one of those left behind by the economy, more than 4,800 adults get regular economic aid from DSHS. That’s half the adult working age population. It’s no wonder: unemployment is 12.6 percent.

Comments | Topics: Department of Social and Health Services, disability, welfare


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