begin a new job
for Citigroup in January,
so this is my last article
contributing columnist for The Times.
I hope to see you again from time to time
on the Op-Ed page.
One of the gravest dangers posed by the weak economy is that the unemployed will
become discouraged and give up looking for work, perhaps permanently as their
skills atrophy. This would be harmful not only to the workers and their
families, but also to the economy as a whole, as those people would no longer
contribute to economic growth. The longer the labor market remains sluggish, the
more pronounced this risk becomes.
Unfortunately, at this point more than six million people have been unemployed
for six months or longer. More than one million have already given up looking
for work because they believe no job is available. And a drastic rise in
applications for disability insurance suggests we may be headed for more
long-lasting trouble. The number of disability applications has reached more
than 750,000 a quarter, according to the Social Security Administration, an
increase of more than 50 percent from four years ago.
The disability insurance program provides crucial support for people who can no
longer work because of a disability. But once someone begins receiving benefits,
the likelihood that he will re-enter the work force is almost nonexistent;
recipients become permanently dependent on the program.
The result is not only lost economic productivity, but also a fiscal burden for
the federal government: disability benefits now cost more than $120 billion a
year, and Medicare benefits for those on disability add $70 billion.
The spike in disability insurance applications (and awards) does not reflect a
less healthy population. The fraction of working-age adults who report a
disability, about one in 10, has remained roughly constant for the past 20
years. (Indeed, it would be surprising if the number of workers with
disabilities had risen by 50 percent over the past four years.) Rather, the weak
labor market has driven more people to apply for disability benefits that they
qualify for but wouldn’t need if they could find work.
When Congress created the disability insurance program in 1956, it required that
recipients be unable to “engage in substantial gainful activity in the U.S.
economy.” In other words, they had to be unable to work. That was sensible at
the time, when more jobs involved physical labor and technologies to assist
people with disabilities were not widely available.
Today, however, many people with disabilities are able to engage in some form of
work — even if they can’t admit that and still keep their insurance benefits.
Cutting off access to the workplace in this way is both unfortunate and
unnecessary — and reinforces the threat that the current downturn could cause a
long-term reduction in the share of people who work.
So what should be done?
First, macroeconomic policy. We need more stimulus immediately, and more deficit
reduction enacted now to take effect in two or three years. The plan just
proposed by the White House in a compromise with Congressional Republicans is
encouraging in that it includes a new payroll tax holiday, a helpful stimulus.
It does not reduce future deficits, but at least it avoids making the Bush tax
cuts permanent, reserving the flexibility to address medium-term deficits down
Even if this plan goes ahead, however, the unemployment rate is likely to remain
high for some time. For it to fall by even one percentage point (from 9.5
percent to 8.5 percent) the economy needs to grow by about 4.5 percent a year.
Second, unemployment insurance should be extended, as President Obama’s
compromise plan also would do. Unemployment benefits are a form of stimulus:
they spur spending and thereby help keep the economy afloat. Just as important,
unemployment benefits keep many people from falling back on disability insurance
— and unlike disability insurance, which effectively prohibits beneficiaries
from seeking work, unemployment insurance requires recipients to keep looking
for a job and thus remain connected to the work force.
Finally, the disability insurance program itself must be reformed. Program
administrators understand the need to encourage beneficiaries to return to work,
and they have experimented with various incentives. Such initiatives have
generally been ineffective, though, because they reach beneficiaries too late,
after they have already become dependent on the program and lost their
attachment to the work force.
A better approach has been suggested by David Autor of M.I.T. and Mark Duggan of
the University of Maryland. In a paper released last week from the Center for
American Progress and the Hamilton Project, these economists argue that
employers should be required to offer their workers private disability
insurance. Such coverage would provide people who have a work-limiting
disability with vocational assistance, workplace accommodation and limited wage
replacement. All of these benefits would kick in within 90 days of the onset of
disability, to avoid the problems with delayed assistance that have plagued
efforts to reform public disability insurance. Private employers would have an
incentive to prevent their workers from having to file disability applications,
because their insurance premiums would rise in response to higher disability
Disabled workers could remain on this privately financed insurance for two
years, and then be eligible for the existing public program. The goal would be
to minimize long-term dependency, and re-orient the federal disability insurance
program toward assisting those who are truly unable to work.
One concern is that this approach would burden firms with additional human
resource costs when we need to encourage hiring. But the costs are projected to
be modest — roughly $250 per worker per year. And if they help to reduce the
future payroll tax increases that would be needed to finance rapid growth in
disability benefits, the pressure on overall labor costs would be even smaller.
Another concern is that private insurance firms would need to be given
substantially expanded responsibility for evaluating workers’ disabilities. Mr.
Autor and Mr. Duggan propose to mitigate this potential problem by suggesting
that workers be allowed to appeal any such evaluations to state government
The Netherlands has adopted a program like this, and the results so far are
promising. In 1994, the Dutch government required all firms to finance the first
six weeks of disability benefits. That period was later extended to one year and
then to two years. In 2002, the program was broadened to require back-to-work
plans, developed cooperatively by the disabled worker, his employer and a
consulting doctor. The number of disability recipients in the Netherlands has
since declined significantly.
None of these policy changes would be easy. But failing to act would result in
millions of Americans needlessly dropping out of the work force. In our
precarious economy, neither progressives nor conservatives should be willing to
watch passively as the disability insurance rolls grow, and beneficiaries are
locked out of the labor market.
the director of the White House Office
Learning disabled people living in the community
finding themselves the victims
of so-called mate crime
Tuesday 14 September 2010
This article was published on guardian.co.uk
at 16.15 BST
on Tuesday 14
A version appeared on p3 of the SocietyGuardian section
of the Guardian
Wednesday 15 September 2010.
Steven Hoskin had strong feelings about his killers. They had
abused, exploited and humiliated him over a year, taking his money, treating him
as their slave and making him wear his own dog's collar and lead. Eventually,
having forced him to swallow 70 painkillers, they took him to the top of a
railway viaduct and made him hang from the railings as one member of the gang, a
girl aged 16, stamped on his hands until he fell 30 metres to his death.
Yet these were the people the 38-year-old, who had severe learning disabilities,
had boasted excitedly of counting as friends. "He thought they were the cat's
whiskers," says Morley Richards, who had known Hoskin before he met the group.
"He would say, 'They're my mates, I've got my own mates now.'"
Hoskin's case is extreme, but the phenomenon of learning disabled people being
groomed by those who pretend to be their friends before being exploited by them
financially, physically or sexually – "mate crime", as it is sometimes known –
is far from rare, experts say, and appears to be on the increase. As more
individuals are given the chance to live independently, the unwelcome side
effect is that they are more likely to fall prey to criminals. Hoskin was a case
in point: he had left the tiny Cornish village of Maudlin, near Bodmin, where he
had grown up, and was thrilled to have his own bedsit in the market town of St
Austell, where he made his new "friends".
The Association for Real Change (ARC) has been researching mate crime for the
past year in Calderdale, west Yorkshire, and in north Devon, after a groundswell
of concern among its members who are service providers for people with learning
disabilities. Examples it has been told about range from perpetrators routinely
going to a victim's house and clearing their cupboards of food and alcohol
before leaving them to clear up the mess, to instances of people being persuaded
to part with their benefits.
Women can be sexually exploited by men who claim to be their boyfriend, says
David Grundy, who runs the Calderdale project. "They might be told, 'We're a
couple and we haven't got any money – if you sleep with my mate he'll pay us.'"
In other cases, someone with learning disabilities may be asked to look after a
package that contains drugs and end up being beaten up as a result, or go
shoplifting with their new-found friends carrying a weapon, only to get caught
The victim may not realise that what is happening is wrong. "There can be a
feeling of, 'He's my friend, that's what friends do,'" says Grundy. "People with
learning disabilities have fewer friends. For some, any friends is better than
no friends, even if they're spending all your money.
"It involves a lot of issues [around] self-belief and self-worth: thinking it's
all right for people to walk all over them all the time, because that's what's
happened to them the whole of their lives."
Rod Landman, from the north Devon project, likens the situation to domestic
violence. "The primacy of the relationship can be more important than what's
happening inside it. People are prepared to put up with all sorts of crap to
keep a relationship that may be the only one they have apart from with someone
who's being paid to be with them." As a result, victims shy away from reporting
such hate crime incidents to the police, or indeed anyone. Every service
provider that Landman talks to will tell him of cases, he says, but no one with
learning disabilities will do the same.
Some families and frontline social care staff are still unaware of what
constitutes a disability hate crime and what to do when one happens, says
Grundy. Abusive relationships may get flagged up to adult safeguarding teams,
but their primary aim is to keep the individual safe by removing them from the
situation, rather than report those committing the crimes. This means that
perpetrators remain free to target others.
As cuts lead to the closure of day centres and potentially less support for
vulnerable people, there are fears that the situation could get worse. Gavin
Harding, vice-chair of the National Forum for People with Learning Disabilities,
remembers the shock and anger he felt five years ago when he realised that
someone he believed to be a friend had taken his cheque book and, together with
another man, forged a cheque for £500.
"It was the fact they took advantage of me," he says. "It felt awful. You feel
you can't trust people after that."
• Information on ARC's Safety Net project is at arcsafety.net