March 22, 2013

Trends With Benefits

The number of Americans receiving federal disability payments has nearly doubled over the last 15 years. There are towns and counties around the nation where almost 1/4 of adults are on disability. Planet Money's Chana Joffe-Walt spent 6 months exploring the disability program, and emerges with a story of the U.S. economy quite different than the one we've been hearing. 


Ira Glass talks with Planet Money reporter, Chana Joffe-Walt, about Hale County, Alabama — a place where one fourth of working age adults are on disability. That means the government has determined that due to a health issue, 25 percent of the adults in Hale County are unable to work, qualifying them for monthly payments and health care coverage. Chana explains that people in Hale County have a lot of theories as to why their disability numbers are so high: freeloaders, cheaters, hard partiers, obesity. But none of those seem quite right. The rise in disability isn't just happening in Hale County but in pockets all over the country. 14 million people are now receiving disability payments. And it's a number that is growing. We devote the whole show today to figuring out why these numbers are ballooning and what it says about our economy. (7 minutes)

Act One

Chana Joffe-Walt spent six months reporting on the rise in people on disability. She spends time in Hale County, Alabama, talking to the only general practitioner in town, the main person who okays so many of the county's residents for disability. In addition to giving each patient a medical exam, the doctor also asks this question: what grade did you finish? Chana explains why that one question is so central to the whole story. (22 minutes)

Act Two

Chana Joffe-Walt continues her story about the phenomenal rise in disability payments over the last 30 years, since President Bill Clinton signed legislation pledging to "end welfare as we know it." Turns out, two private sector groups have really contributed to the growing disability roles. One is a group of people you'd probably expect, the other is a shock. And Chana looks at one of the fastest growing populations on disability: kids. (26 minutes)