Wednesday, July 13, 2016

How Is This Possible?

Lots is happening. And by lots, even more than just having two kids. It's been hard to put down any thoughts and I don't like doing it on other social media. But it's time to re-engage.

Two big things happening are Brexit here in the UK (where I live) and elections in the US (where I am from). There are a lot of conversations for me these days that include the phase "How is this possible?", whether discussing the UK's pending departure from the EU or the 22.5% (today anyway) possibility of victory for Trump. For me, it's not that we have a 22.5% of Trump winning, it's that he's even there at all. Something big has happened and we haven't noticed.

I'd heard this podcast, Trends with Benefits, several years ago, but it stuck in my mind and reading some recent political commentary made me want to go and re-listen.
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.
I did re-listen and it is pretty amazing. I think it goes a long way to explaining a group of people who feel left out, angry and might vote without having too much too lose.

I'm not suggesting that an deliberate policy to push people off welfare and onto disability benefits that started with the Clinton administration during it's 1990s can explain the rise of Trump (and I am pretty sure it has nothing to do with why the UK voted for Brexit). But there are very interesting aspects about a changed economy and whole armies of people who are not prepared to work any more. Incentives have changed for a lot of people and, what I hear in a lot of the interviews, are people who don't see anyone doing anything about their problems. They rationally come to accept what they get.
And it's not a great income, about $13,000 a year. But if your alternative is a minimum wage job that will pay you $15,000 a year-- a job you may or may not be able to get, may or may not be able to keep, that probably won't be full time, and very likely will not include health insurance-- disability may be a better option.

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