14 Million Americans on Disability

In Hale County, Alabama, 1 in 4 working-age adults is on disability. On the day government checks come in every month, banks stay open late, Main Street fills up with cars, and anybody looking to unload an old TV or armchair has a yard sale.

Sonny Ryan, a retired judge in town, didn’t hear disability cases in his courtroom. But the subject came up often. He described one exchange he had with a man who was on disability but looked healthy.

“Just out of curiosity, what is your disability?” the judge asked from the bench.
“I have high blood pressure,” the man said.
“So do I,” the judge said. “What else?”
“I have diabetes.”
“So do I.”

If you haven’t read Chana Joffe-Walt’s story about the number of Americans who are on disability in the U.S., it’s worth taking the time to read today (or listen to, if you’re a This American Life podcast subscriber). There are places in America where 1 in 4 working-age adults are in disability due to health issues like back pain and diabetes — 25 percent of adults in Hale County, Alabama, for example, have been determined to be unable to work and are collecting disability checks from the government totaling up to about $13,000 a year, plus Medicare benefits. It’s not a lot of money. As Joffe-Walt points out: “Going on disability means, assuming you rely only on those disability payments, you will be poor for the rest of your life. That’s the deal. And it’s a deal 14 million Americans have signed up for.” And it’s also a deal we can’t afford: The Social Security Administration estimates that reserves in the disability insurance program are on track to run out in 2016. If you do listen to the story, take the time to read it as well — the charts by Planet Money’s Lam Thuy Vo are great.

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