Trends with Benefits

Luke 16:19-31
Episode 490

It’s one of the more familiar stories in the Bible: a rich man lives a lavish life, ignoring the poverty just outside of the gates of his home. When he dies, he finds himself not in paradise, but in hades being tormented for eternity. He looks up, and sees at the side of Abraham, Lazarus the poor man, forever in paradise.

The rich man wonders what he has done to receive this fate, and Abraham informs him that he received his reward in life, and that now everything had been turned. Lazarus, who lives a difficult life, now gets to enjoy his reward in paradise.

Abraham does not explain this to the rich man as a question of morality, whereby if he had followed the rules he would have received the prize. The rich man did not end up in hades because he broke the rules, but as Abraham tells him “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

How does this chasm, between the rich and the poor, grow so large? (Hint: it’s not just a question about the afterlife)

In episode 490 of This American Life, Chana Joffe of Planet Money sets out to try to understand how in certain areas of the country nearly a quarter of the population receives disability benefits from the government. Her search quickly yield several chasms, between peoples perceptions of why people go on disability, and what actually drives so many people, many of whom are healthy, to seek out federal benefits for minor injuries.

Joffe begins her research in Hale Country, NC, where the rate of workers on disability is nearly 22%. She begins her research by asking citizens why they think the number is so high, and gets the answers outsiders probably expect: people are cheating the system and receiving benefits because they are lazy and don’t want to work, or that people in that particular place in the country lived reckless lives that led to poor health later in life.

As she continues her search, she finds that while there are people who legitimately qualify for disability benefits, many have problems like sore backs, and high cholesterol, things that lots of working people face. Joffe continues to wonder: why are these people not working? Can it be true that they are unfairly benefiting from the system, or is there something else going on?

Her search takes an interesting turn when she meets a local doctor, Perry Timberlake, who is known for approving people for disability benefits. When he goes through and describes the questions he asks people, one sticks out: “What is your highest level of education?” Joffe, confused why this matters, pursues it in her interview, only to find out that for Dr. Timberlake, part of disability is being able to find “gainful” employment. If, he concludes, you don’t have a high school diploma, you probably cannot find the kind of sit-down job someone with back pain would need to make a living.

If you are thinking that this sound preposterous, you’re not alone; Joffe questions how difficult it could be to find a job that would cater to someone with back pain as well. And then she meets Ethel and Joseph Thomas.

Ethel is an older woman in Hale County who receives disability for a sore back, and her husband, Joseph receives benefits for a sore hand. Joffe asks Ethel, who seems perfectly healthy, why she doesn’t get a job that involves sitting, and Ethel becomes confused. Then Joffe, trying to get at the same point asks another question: what would be your dream job? Ethel answers that she would like to be the person at the social security office, where the disability checks are distributed, so that she could work to weed out people who are cheating the system. What Joffe realizes is that the reason Ethel wants that job is because it is the only work she has ever seen someone do that involved sitting all day.

This is where the chasm appears for Joffe: there are places in the country where the idea of a sit-down job is non-existent. when asked why her husband can’t work a job that doesn’t involve using his hands, both of them laugh: what kind of work could you possibly do without your hands? “It is that gap,” she writes, “between the world I live in and the world Ethel’s world that’s a big part of why the disability program has been growing so rapidly, a gap that prevents someone from even imagining the working world I live in, where you can work and have a sore back.”

We learn in this episode that the disability program has been growing exponentially over the past 30 years, with the number of workers receiving benefits doubling every 15 years, during a period with a focus on combatting discrimination against the disabled. The program is not growing, it seems, because there are suddenly more disabled people, but rather that shifts in the economy and reforms to the welfare program have left some communities unable to provide enough of the right kind of work for their citizens. Joffe writes:

Joseph and Ethel Thomas live in a depressed town in a poor state in a national economy that is basically in the process of fully abandoning every kind of job they know how to do. Being poorly educated in a rotten place, that in and of itself has become a disability. This is a new reality. This gap between workers who are fit for the US economy and millions of workers who are increasingly not. And it’s a change that’s spreading to towns and cities that have thrived in the American economy. Places that made cars and steel and batteries and textiles. The disability programs are acting like a sponge, sopping up otherwise desperate people.

What begins to emerge is an understanding of the disability program not as a way for people to cheat the system and receive money from the government for non-existing conditions, but rather a system that hides the inability of the economy to account for and adjust to the needs of low wage workers in depressed areas of the country. The chasm between rich and poor, in this story, is much more that a problem of behavior; it’s a problem of access to good work.

The story Joffe tells brings new life to the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Much like the chasm that grows between them, leading to a chasm in the world to come, so our economy often separates the wealthy and the poor. How do we respond to this increasing gap between those with access to meaningful work and those without? It’s a question that calls us from understanding poverty as an issue of individual responsibility (people are lazy, rich people need to give more money to charity, etc.) to a problem with the very economy we participate in and benefit from. And it is a question we must ask as followers of Christ, lest we become like the rich man who fails to see the poverty at his own gate.

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