Imagine for a moment that Congress woke up one morning, realized that the United States was suffering from a paralyzing long-term unemployment crisis, and, in a moment of progressive pique, decided to create a welfare program aimed at middle-aged, blue-collar workers.
The one thing everybody could probably agree on is that it should help all those jobless 50-somethings find employment, right?
Well, as NPR's Planet Money argues in an eye-opening story, it turns out there already is a "de facto welfare program" for those struggling Americans. The problem is, instead of getting the unemployed back on their feet, it pays them to give up work for good.
I'm talking about Social Security's disability insurance program, which over 20 years has quietly morphed into one of the largest, yet least talked about, pieces of the social safety net. Since the early 1990s, the number of former workers receiving payments under it has more than doubled to about 8.5 million, as shown in Planet Money's graph below. More than five percent of all eligible adults are now on the rolls, up from around 3 percent twenty years ago. Add in children and spouses who also get checks, and the grand tally comes to 11.5 million.