There is a big problem with the limits of the current discourse on defending disability benefits: it invariably has the strictness of Social Security’s disability insurance program — only 4 in 10 applicants get benefits — at the core of its argument. That is to say, these arguments imply that the program is so strict that if people are receiving benefits, they are very likely to be “deserving” of them in the first place. Therefore, the logic goes, right-wing attacks contending that the program has too much fraud or is too generous or is too lax are unfair because recipients are obviously not gaming the system.1 People defending the disability insurance program often use examples of applicants being denied benefits to make this point, and even detail the struggles of these people to drive the point home.2
While attacks from the right are certainly repugnant, as Corey Robin pointed out in a post last year this line of defense against them either intentionally or unintentionally pits the deserving poor against the undeserving poor.3 This accepts the terms of right-wing attacks (i.e. that this is a matter of how to sort applicants into these categories) and also weakens the political base of support of the program and others like it by pitting people against each other. As the calls for Medicare for All — universal, single-payer healthcare — grow, this is a great time to discard the logic of neoliberalism in the context of the disability insurance program and argue for expanding, not maintaining, its benefits and eligibility criteria. This would nicely complement other strategies in defending it.4 In other words, many of the rejected applicants that liberals trot out to show how stringent the criteria are for these programs probably deserve benefits too: the answer to their hardships is not just about finding ways for them to reenter the labor market. (They also don’t deserve to be used as props.)
All of this is not to say that talking about the realities of the disability insurance program is not useful. But in a discussion that includes the program’s eligibility requirements or its byzantine administrative processes, there needs to be at least a mention of this broader perspective, not only because it is a more strategic way of defending the program, but because it also is a more compassionate way to advocate for those that would suffer most from cuts. Put generally, it’s more important to talk about what you stand for — in this case, a just disability program — rather than what you stand in opposition to.
1: This logic also treats right-wing attacks as if they are in good faith, but they are likely not.
2: Another rather perverse result of arguments along these lines: the fact that people in the disability insurance program often die only a few years after they start receiving benefits is held up as evidence that the program is sufficiently strict, not that it has this cruel reality at its heart.
3: It is important to note that this is the explicit goal of some neoliberals, and the implicit goal of even more.
4: For example, the disability insurance program can more easily have broad support because it is a universal program — it is insurance after all — and because it is under the umbrella of Social Security in general, which also includes the retirement program (i.e. the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program, often referred to as just “Social Security”). The retirement program is called the “third rail” of American politics because it is extremely popular, which helps insulate it, and to a lesser extent the disability program, from cuts.