Selling a disability

Socsec If you're an American and you have a job, you're supposed to get an annual statement from the Social Security Administration explaining how much money you stand to receive at retirement. It also reports what your dependents will get from the SSA if you die, and what you'll get if you become disabled.

For me, the statement is a stark reminder of how much I rely on my wife's income to survive. As a writer, my income is sporadic, and if I couldn't work, I'd have a difficult time living on my Social Security benefits alone. Many people see the Social Security program as a sort of charity, but fundamentally it is not: The more you put in, the more you get back from it. If a person hasn't made much money, they won't be able to collect enough benefits from Social Security to live on. But even when people do pay in, the system has made it nearly impossible for some people to receive the benefits they deserve.

For physical laborers, the very work they do can end up causing disabilities that prevent them from working. My stepbrother Mark had always had a bad back, but he'd dealt with the problem by loading up on Advil and taking an occasional day off. He never visited a doctor about the problem because his jobs never provided health coverage. Often, before starting a job, his boss would pull him aside and remind him that he was not an employee; he was an “independent contractor,” which meant that the boss wasn't responsible for any injuries or other problems that occurred on the job site. There was no health coverage, no unemployment insurance, no safety net at all, physical or financial.

Once Mark was working on a makeshift bit of scaffolding in the cavernous great room of a partially-completed McMansion. He was 30 feet above the rough plywood floor, balancing on a narrow plank, attaching blocks to the rafters with a nail gun so heavy it was difficult for him to hold it over his head, weakened as he was by his deteriorating back. A nail got caught in the gun, causing it to backfire; the 15-pound piece of equipment glanced off the ceiling before crashing down on his face. The blow cracked a tooth and nearly knocked him unconscious. He's still not sure how he managed to stay on that plank. If he had fallen—supposing he managed to survive—he would have had no way to pay his medical bills.

About eight years ago, Mark realized that he wasn't going to be able to continue doing construction work and other low-paying manual labor. He enrolled in a vocational school to become a dental technician, but as I mentioned last month, even this quickly became too demanding for him. Hours of sitting in class only made his condition worse.

By the spring of 2003, he had to quit school. He was 38 years old, unable to work, barely able to walk, and had no idea what he was going to do next. He was surprised the first time someone suggested he apply for welfare. He'd never taken any government aid, and didn't even know where to start.

Eventually he learned that he qualified for Washington State's General Assistance—Unemployable funds, which is supposed to be a temporary means of support while people apply for the Social Security Disability program. In six months to a year, if you're truly disabled, you should be getting bigger checks from the federal government.

But applying for state assistance was humiliating and frustrating. You're not allowed to apply in person; it must be done online or by mail. Then, even if you apply online, the state mails you a letter with an appointment date. Miss the appointment date, and you have to wait 30 days to schedule another. Mark's letters kept arriving the day after the scheduled appointment; it took months for him to even see a human being. Finally one letter arrived in time. He showed up at the appointed hour to an enormous room with shuttered windows around the perimeter and a cluster of chairs in the middle. “You couldn't speak to anyone until they called your name,” Mark said. Then finally, he was allowed to approach a window, where he was assigned a clerk to handle his case. Eventually, after months of paperwork, he was awarded his “prize”: $320 a month, or half his monthly rent.

In the meantime, he also was applying for Social Security. He had been told that everyone who applies for it gets turned down the first time; that there was a waiting list hundreds of thousands of names long. While the paperwork was extensive and difficult and the bureaucracy was stifling, for Mark the worst part might have been simply persuading himself that he needed government aid: “You have to convince yourself you're disabled. Your whole life you've been thinking about taking care of yourself.” While in some respects he had seen this coming, he still felt like there was a lot he could do. And he could; the problem was that if he exerted himself too much, it took him a few days to recover. Most employers aren't interested in hiring people who can only work one out of four days—and who can't predict which day that will be.

As expected, he did get turned down. This was a man who couldn't sit in a chair for more than 30 minutes at a time, and who could, with an extraordinary effort, walk perhaps a half mile in an hour. He wondered if he was the problem—maybe he wasn't “selling” his disability. If you're too sick to work, it seemed to Mark, you can only get assistance if you're well enough to pitch for it. In the meantime, every six months he had to re-apply for aid from Washington State, for food stamps, and for medical care. Being “unemployable” was turning out to be an awful lot of work.

Finally he did what most successful applicants for Social Security Disability do. He hired a lawyer. In Washington there are dozens of lawyers who specialize in these cases. They not only make a legal case for you, they help you navigate through the sea of red tape the government requires. To curb abuse, these attorneys were restricted to a maximum $5,000 cut of their client's settlement. “Guess how much the fee was,” Mark said. Finally, after three years, Mark was awarded $9,400 in back payments and placed on Social Security Disability. The remaining $4,400 went to Washington State to cover their General Assistance—Unemployable fund.

Penniless, and in debt from vocational school, Mark could now begin trying to figure out what he would do with the rest of his life. One thing was certain: Paperwork would continue to be a part of it. His $650 per month still places him well below the poverty line. While he can almost survive on this budget, any surprise expense carries with it the potential for disaster. Like when his heater broke in the middle of winter. Or when he needs a new pair of shoes. Every month, it seems, there's a new bureaucratic hurdle to overcome, a letter in the mail threatening suspension of benefits if some form isn't filled out by…three days ago. Each time, he must convince some new bureaucrat that he truly deserves whatever aid is in question. He still has trouble getting his head around the idea that “you're no good anymore and you need help.”

Yet still, he has passion, for art, for the pair of stray cats he adopted, for any small improvement he can make to his tiny home (he's moved from his $670 apartment in Tacoma to a house in Centralia, which costs him $450 per month). He still wants to make worthwhile things, to justify his place on Earth, as do we all.

As do we all.

Over a million Americans are now waiting for a hearing on their Social Security Disability benefits. Some of them will die before they receive a penny from the federal government. Washington State's welfare program for the disabled, now called “Disability Lifeline,” which is supposed to bridge the gap between unemployment and federal disability programs, is slated to be cut. Perhaps some of the people who benefit from these meager programs are just trying to cheat the system, but if I had to bet on it, I'd say cases like Mark's vastly outnumber them. These aren't people looking for “free” money; these are people who would give anything, just to be able to work for a living once more.