Disabled, or just desperate? Rural Americans turn to disability as jobs dry up
BEAVERTON, Ala. - 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.
His mother had written a number the night before and told him to call it, and he had told her he'd think about it. She wanted him to apply for disability, like she had, like his girlfriend had, and like his stepfather, whom he now saw shuffling out of the pain clinic, hunched over his walker, reaching for a hand-rolled cigarette. Spencer got out of the truck. He lit his own.
"Remember we were talking about it last night?" he asked Gene Ruby. "Remember we were talking about signing up?"
"Yeah," said Ruby, 64.
"Remember Mama said there was a number you got to call?"
"She's got the number," Ruby said. "The Social Security number."
Spencer kept asking questions. What would Social Security want to know? How often are people denied? But he didn't mention the one that had been bothering him the most lately: Was he a failure?
"There's a stigma about it," Spencer said, thinking aloud. "Disabled. Disability. Drawing a check. But if you're putting food on the table, does it matter?"
Then: "I could probably still work."
He put his stepfather's walker in the truck bed, got behind the wheel, started another cigarette and, pulling out of the pain clinic's parking lot, headed for home.
Rise in disability claims
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.
The increases have been worse in working-class areas, worse still in communities where residents are older, and worst of all in places with shrinking populations and few immigrants.
All but three of the 136 counties with the highest rates - where more than one in six working-age adults receive disability - were rural, the analysis found, although the vast majority of people on disability live in cities and suburbs.
The counties - spread out from northern Michigan, through the boot heel of Missouri and Appalachia, and into the Deep South - are largely racially homogeneous. Eighteen of the counties were majority black, but the remaining counties were, on average, 87 percent white. In the 2016 presidential election, the majority-white counties voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, whose rhetoric of a rotting nation with vast joblessness often reflects lived experiences in these communities.
Most people aren't employed when they apply for disability - one reason applicant rates skyrocketed during the recession. Full-time employment would, in fact, disqualify most applicants. And once on it, few ever get off, their ranks uncounted in the national unemployment rate, which doesn't include people on disability.