Friday, April 26, 2013

Disability Checks and the Black Community

This past March, the radio program, "This American Life," published an examination of what was happening in America in terms of the growing number of people on disability. "Trends With Benefits" looks at the system all over the country from those who are on disability, to the legislation passed that allows so many people to get on disability, and those who benefit from getting people on disability. 

In Part I, the main investigator, Planet Money's Chana Joffe-Walt, went to Hales County Alabama where 25% of the working adults are on disability checks from the government. While there she encountered people who seemed like they should be able to manage jobs that required no physical labor, but did did not. The situation was further complicated by the number of working people in Hales County who told her that a lot of people on disability manipulated the system so that they did not have to work. They believed that people on disability were "freeloaders, cheaters, hard partiers," and obese people who wanted to exploit their problems in order to receive money. People on disability that she talked to all had health issues of which the most prominent were chronic back pain (the most common), high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

Many in Hales County believe that it is unfair that people use manageable health conditions, which with the right medication, diet, and exercise can be alleviated, as excuses to not work. They believe that rather than addressing their health issues, people on disability stew in their own self-pity and then receive checks for doing so. One man who had a job talked about how he encountered a man, who did not work, was on disability, and yet suffered from the exact same health issues as he did, diabetes and high blood pressure. Part I of the show shows the prominence of people who negatively view those on disability. 

People who hold contempt for those on disability often overlook the fact that these people are poor and have no more than a high school education which prevents them from acquiring jobs that would accomodate their health issues. People with chronic back pain can't stand and make burgers in a fast food restaurant for hours on end. And, they often don't have enough education to get jobs where they can sit all day. The same is also true for those with high blood pressure (standing all day really doesn't work out so well for them) and those suffering from severe obesity.  

This problem particularly affects the African American community. Many have high school educations and can only work menial labor jobs. Once they get injured, and especially if it is a long term injury, they are out of work probably for the rest of their life. Of the people interviewed in this episode, one middle-aged black couple survived on disability checks. The husband used to work in a factory until his hands were injured and the wife was in a car accident that resulted in her having chronic back pain. The wife in particular talks about how its not that she doesn't want to work, but that there are no available jobs for her. Joffe-Walt discovered that all the jobs available in Hales County that hired people with a high school education required extensive standing or physical labor. 

The article covers the disability situation in America thoroughly. Although it doesn't directly focus on race, it still points to the lack of education in the black community that ultimately prevents blacks from achieving more opportunities and social mobilization, and the fact that these blacks can't go back to work once they are injured. The article shows that the American public largely views those on disability, including blacks, with a lack of respect without realizing that these people are the victims of a system that favors the privileged. This article articulated to me how ignorance is still a large contributing factor to the white community's racist views towards black people.    


  1. I agree, to me the ways in which our society views poverty and welfare is very reminescent of how we think of racism in the past. It seems as though many are filled with an ignorance as to how the other half lives. Due to a number of reasons we find this classism to be totallly acceptable because we like to think that it is totally free of being race. In many ways class and race are linked although I wouldnt excuse this classism even if race were hypothetically not apart of it. We as a society just havenot found a way to break down this classism as i think many are ignorant to the actual state of our "welfare state".

  2. I agree with your main point that the problem of disability benefits should be looked at from different perspectives. It’s easy to look at people with supposedly manageable health conditions on disability and assume that they are lazy. However, we come from a different background and therefore have problems seeing things from the perspective of others. I had never thought about the fact that someone with chronic back problems couldn’t work a grill or do other jobs that did not require a high level of education.
    I also think that this is a problem to which there is no clear solution. People who have been injured or disabled often have no way to get a higher level of education, but there are no jobs available for them if they don’t. At this point, receiving disability benefits is the only solution. Perhaps with improvements in the medical field, injuries will become less permanent and more people will be able to work. Jobs could also be modified to help people who can’t stand or do heavy lifting; however, I again see no way to do this. The idea of disability benefits is a very interesting one and I’m glad you found this article.

  3. I was riding in my friend's car the other day and we happened to drive through a very poor, black neighborhood. It was a hot day and many people were outside. Adults sat, watching their children as they played. When someone in the car asked, "It's so hot, why are they outside?," someone else replied with something to the effect of "They have nothing better to do, it's not like they work." I was totally shocked by this and very offended. I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything. Looking back, I truly regret this. Such ignorant comments, frequently made by privileged white college students like her, reveal the disconnect between wealthy whites and basically everyone else. Her insensitive comment about the people sitting outside (and poor blacks in general) was the result of her inability to identify with them. She judged them based on her privileged white perspective, without thinking about their situation. Maybe they were sitting outside because air-conditioning is too expensive. Maybe they weren't at work because day-care is too expensive and they had to watch their kids. Maybe there were a bunch of other factors she didn't think about, because she's never had to think about them. Had she put herself in their shoes, I don't think she would have said what she did. But in America today, no one puts themselves in other people's shoes. If we did, no one would view disability so negatively.