From an op ed piece in the L.A Times by Rourke O'Brien, postdoctoral fellow in population health at Harvard University:
[W]e must not let the rhetoric of fraud, abuse and “welfare queens” that accompanied the end of welfare as we know it in the 1990s frame the conversation [on the future of Social Security disability].
Americans generally are skeptical of individuals who receive government benefits, biased to think that they are undeserving. It may be our unyielding belief in everyone's ability to bootstrap his or her way to success through hard work or just the way we esteem self-sufficiency. In the context of cash welfare, research shows that this bias leads us to assume all benefit recipients are lazy. In the context of disability — where benefits are predicated on the existence of a qualifying health condition — our skepticism toward recipients of government assistance may influence the way we evaluate their health.
And new evidence suggests that it does just that.
As part of a nationally representative survey I conducted, about 1,000 individuals were asked to read several vignettes, each describing an individual with a health condition such as chronic back pain, depression or symptoms consistent with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (for children).
Respondents were then asked to rate the severity of each condition and the degree to which they considered it “disabling.” Before reading the vignettes, the respondents had been randomly assigned to either a treatment or control group. After reading instructions for the study, those in the treatment group read an additional sentence noting that
individuals with disabilities may be eligible for government benefits.
The result? Respondents primed with a reference to government assistance were less likely to consider the health conditions described as severe or disabling relative to the control group. Just hinting at the existence of government assistance was enough to change their evaluation of health conditions. What's more, in follow-up questions, respondents in the treatment group were more likely to blame the individual for her health condition. ...
In efforts to paint some of those applying for disability benefits as undeserving, we tend to question both the severity and the legitimacy of the qualifying health condition. We tell ourselves they don't deserve assistance because the condition just isn't that bad, and regardless, they are to blame for their health problems anyway.