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Rand Paul's Attack On The Disability Program Hits A Right-Wing Pleasure Center

Rand Paul has no idea what life is like for these people -- but then again, empathy for people who aren't like you is not exactly a prerequisite for Republican presidential nominees, is it?
Rand Paul's Attack On The Disability Program Hits A Right-Wing Pleasure Center
Image from: Brian Snyder/Reuters

Rand Paul got some attention today:

Democrats blasted Sen. Rand Paul on Wednesday for arguing that a majority of people collecting Social Security disability benefits are taking advantage of the system.

Speaking at a New Hampshire diner about government waste, the Kentucky Republican said "there's always somebody who's deserving" of entitlement programs, "But everybody in this room knows somebody who's gaming the system."

"What I tell people is, if you look like me and you hop out of your truck, you shouldn't be getting a disability check. Over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts -- join the club," he said, drawing a few laughs from the audience. "Who doesn't get a little anxious for work everyday and their back hurts? Everybody over 40 has back pain.

Steve Benen notes that government monitors don't see all the fraud Rand Paul claims to see:

Not too long ago the Inspector General of Social Security Administration did a thorough investigation of fraud in the disability-insurance program. The result was striking: less than 0.3% of disability payments were improper. (Or put another way, about 99.8% of the payments were legit.) When the Government Accountability Office went looking for disability fraud, it came up with similar findings.

But right-wingers are obsessed with the disability program, and have been for years. Here are just some of the headlines that have appeared in the past couple of years at Fox Nation:

* Report: $21b In False Disability Claims Handed Out Annually
* Disability Claims Explode During Obama’s First Term
* Every Month, 14 Million People Get a Disability Check from the Government ...
* Disability Scammer Caught on Tape
* O'Reilly Exposes Massive 'Disability Con'
* Study: More Americans on Disability Than Live in NYC
* More People Went on Disability Than Got Jobs in June
* Scary Chart of the Day: Disability vs. Jobs

And, yes:

* 1.3 Million People Collected Federal Disability Benefits For ‘Mood Disorders’


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Of, course, as Benen says regarding that latter category:

Let’s also not forget that many of those on disability are American war veterans who cannot work due to PTSD. In fairness to Paul, when he mocked “anxiety” as an ailment, he didn’t specifically ridicule vets, but this is an angle worth keeping an eye on.

Paul may have picked up the specific pairing of mood disorders and back pain from a December 2012 Michael Barone column titled "Men Find Careers in Collecting Disability":

In his recent book, "A Nation of Takers: America's Entitlement Epidemic," my American Enterprise Institute colleague Nicholas Eberstadt has shown how DI has grown in recent years.

... Americans have grown healthier, and significantly lower numbers die before 65 than was the case a half-century ago. Nevertheless, the disability rolls have ballooned.

One reason is that the government seems to have gotten more openhanded with those claiming vague ailments. Eberstadt points out that in 1960, only one-fifth of disability benefits went to those with "mood disorders" and "muscoskeletal" problems. In 2011, nearly half of those on disability voiced such complaints.

"It is exceptionally difficult -- for all practical purposes, impossible," writes Eberstadt, "for a medical professional to disprove a patient's claim that he or she is suffering from sad feelings or back pain."

In other words, many people are gaming or defrauding the system.

Or it may have come from Stuart Varney on Fox News last May:

... there's been an expansion in who qualifies for disability payments. Mental disorder is now acceptable. Mood disorder, or back pain. Now, that kind of opens the door to fraud because you can't really prove a lot of that.

(Those categories were also "acceptable" in 1961, but never mind.)

Chana Joffe-Walt of NPR's Planet Money team also reported that approximately half of disability claims in 2011 were because of musculoskeletal problems or mental disorders (a statistic that was eagerly quoted at the usually NPR-averse Breitbart). But Joffe-Walt spent some time in Hale County, Alabama, which has a high percentage of residents on disability, and she concluded that the people getting disability are getting it because their level of pain simply excludes them from any job they could reasonably obtain:

Over and over again, I'd listen to someone's story of how back pain meant they could no longer work, or how a shoulder injury had put them out of a job. Then I would ask: What about a job where you don't have to lift things, or a job where you don't have to use your shoulder, or a job where you can sit down? They would look at me as if I were asking, "How come you didn't consider becoming an astronaut?"

One woman I met, Ethel Thomas, is on disability for back pain after working many years at the fish plant, and then as a nurse's aide. When I asked her what job she would have in her dream world, she told me she would be the woman at the Social Security office who weeds through disability applications. I figured she said this because she thought she'd be good at weeding out the cheaters. But that wasn't it. She said she wanted this job because it is the only job she's seen where you get to sit all day.

At first, I found this hard to believe. But then I started looking around town. There's the McDonald's, the fish plant, the truck repair shop. I went down a list of job openings -- Occupational Therapist, McDonald's, McDonald's, Truck Driver (heavy lifting), KFC, Registered Nurse, McDonald's.

I actually think it might be possible that Ethel could not conceive of a job that would accommodate her pain.

If you can get a job that requires no physically difficult work, consider yourself lucky -- much of America can't say the same thing. The jobs aren't available, and the workers lack the qualifications in any case. Rand Paul has no idea what life is like for these people -- but then again, empathy for people who aren't like you is not exactly a prerequisite for Republican presidential nominees, is it?

Crossposted at No More Mr. Nice Blog

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