U.S. map showing the percentage of working people on disability in 2004 ansd 2015. Nationwide, the rate of working-age people on federal disability assistance increased 23 percent since 2004. At a county level, rural areas have seen the sharpest increases and the highest disability rates. Graphic: Leslie Shapiro and Dan Keating / The Washington Post

By Terrence McCoy
30 March 2017

(The Washington Post) – The lobby at the pain-management clinic had become crowded with patients, so relatives had gone outside to their trucks to wait, and here, too, sat Desmond Spencer, smoking a 9 a.m. cigarette and watching the door. He tried stretching out his right leg, knowing these waits can take hours, and winced. He couldn’t sit easily for long, not anymore, and so he took a sip of soda and again thought about what he should do.

He hadn’t had a full-time job in a year. He was skipping meals to save money. He wore jeans torn open in the front and back. His body didn’t work like it once had. He limped in the days, and in the nights, his hands would swell and go numb, a reminder of years spent hammering nails. His right shoulder felt like it was starting to go, too.

But did all of this pain mean he was disabled? Or was he just desperate?

He wouldn’t even turn 40 for a few more months.

An hour passed, and his cellphone rang. He picked it up, said hello and hung up — another debt collector. He rubbed his right knee. Maybe it would get better. Maybe he would still find a job. […]

The decision that burdened Desmond Spencer was one that millions of Americans have faced over the past two decades as the number of people on disability has surged. Between 1996 and 2015, the number of working-age adults receiving disability climbed from 7.7 million to 13 million. The federal government this year will spend an estimated $192 billion on disability payments, more than the combined total for food stamps, welfare, housing subsidies and unemployment assistance.

The rise in disability has emerged as yet another indicator of a widening political, cultural and economic chasm between urban and rural America.

Across large swaths of the country, disability has become a force that has reshaped scores of mostly white, almost exclusively rural communities, where as many as one-third of working-age adults live on monthly disability checks, according to a Washington Post analysis of Social Security Administration statistics.

Rural America experienced the most rapid increase in disability rates over the past decade, the analysis found, amid broad growth in disability that was partly driven by demographic changes that are now slowing as disabled baby-boomers age into retirement. [more]

Disabled or just desperate? Rural Americans turn to disability as jobs dry up

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