The New, “New Welfare Queens”

One of the more fascinating political phenomena of the last few years has been the search by constitutionally infuriated conservatives for some of the racially charged mojo of the anti-welfare campaigns of the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. Whether you think the welfare reform legislation of 1996 was a success, a mixed success, or an abject failure, it did indeed defuse “welfare queen” demagoguery decisively.

But the decline of cash public assistance payments as a target has been accompanied by the identification of new targets, particularly since the rise of Barack Obama and the revival of racial politics on the Right (I’ve written about this extensively, here, here and here). These include beneficiaries of the Community Reinvestment Act, that obscure and limited program encouraging mortgage lenders to cast their net more widely, which assumed lurid dimensions in conservative explanations of the housing and financial crises of 2008; those receiving counter-cyclical assistance (including expanded unemployment assistance and the enhanced Earned Income Tax Credit) during the Great Recession; and of course those receiving health coverage under Obamacare.

When Mitt Romney went back to the original “welfare queen” narrative during the 2012 campaign by mendaciously claiming Obama was “gutting” welfare reform, it was almost a relief.

But now there’s yet another new target in sight for conservatives in search of a symbol of big government linking arms with freeloaders and “takers:” the Social Security Disability program.

The furor seems to have started outside conservative politics, with an NPR story by Chana Joffe-Walt on the steep rise in the number of people officially certified as disabled. The main focus on her piece was the clear connection she found between the shrinking number of jobs available (before and after the Great Recession) for people of limited education and their efforts (often assisted by advocates) to qualify for Disability. But purveyors of conservative agitprop quickly saw the opportunity, and soon Jonah Goldberg of National Review and the fine folks at the Wall Street Journal were on the bandwagon, with the latter suggesting the rise of disability claims was a big factor in slow jobs growth (aha! you could almost hear conservative message-meisters say, this is why the unemployment rate’s gone down under Obama!).

The pushback to this disability-is-the-new-welfare talk has followed two argument-in-the-alternative directions. Both The Atlantic‘s Philip Bump and MoJo’s Kevin Drum have looked at the numbers and concluded that most of the “spike” in disability spending is attributable to the predictable aging of the Baby Boom generation. Kevin has also responded to the largely anecdotal evidence of people turning to Disability not because they can’t work but because they can’t find work by suggesting that’s the price we are paying for failing to deal with a chronic disconnect between jobs and workers:

There are a growing number of workers who are all but unemployable, and we can either throw them on the streets or else we can provide them with a small government benefit. Most of us, even the ones who talk the toughest, aren’t willing to toss people out on the streets, so by hook or by crook, disability has become our way of providing the unemployable with a small pension. It’s obviously a million miles from perfect, but it’s better than nothing. And no one has a serious incentive to fix it, because fixing it would mean facing up directly to the problem.

That’s true, but there’s a simpler explanation for the upward pressure on Disability certification, best described by the constant issue in all government programs of “takeup rates.” For any given “entitlement,” there are millions of Americans who qualify but would prefer to secure benefits via employment. When jobs become scare, the “takeup rate”–the percentage of people who apply–goes up. That doesn’t mean there is “fraud” involved or that these people are “takers;” they’re just pursuing entirely legitimate public options for keeping themselves alive that they wouldn’t necessarily pursue in better times. That’s an entirely separate issue from claims that standards of eligibility are being deliberately relaxed because we don’t know what else to do with these folks.

It’s all the more reason to stay focused on creating jobs, and to continue the hard, slow slog of efforts to help more people qualify for the jobs that do exist via improved education and training measures. But conservatives have a really hard time accepting chronic unemployment as anything other than (a) the product of policies that persecute the poor job-creator, or (b) reflecting a moral collapse of the working class, or (c) both. Or perhaps it’s just that keeping alive the boogeyman of the “welfare queens” who are laugh-laugh-laughing as they and liberal elites conspire to rob virtuous hard-working Americans is a political weapon on which conservatives have become all too dependent.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.