It’s not enough anymore for politicians to furrow their brows about the high rate of unemployment for people with disabilities. And “urging” employers “give disabled people a chance,” while all to the good, only goes so far. Government action alone can’t solve the problem. But there are specific policy changes that could help. If candidates want to earn disabled people’s votes, getting serious and creative about addressing structural barriers to disabled people’s employment goals would be a good start.
Scope and scale …
There are a hundred ways to measure the state of disability and employment. Here are just a few key indicators:
- The 2019, pre-pandemic unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 7.9% … more than twice the rate for non-disabled people. The rate for Black disabled people rate was 11.8%, for Hispanic disabled people, 8.6%.
- 32% of working disabled people were employed part-time, a little less than twice the number of non-disabled people who worked part-time.
A 2017 study by the Kessler Foundation offers additional insights into employment and unemployment patterns among people with disabilities:
“68.4% of survey respondents were striving to work. The striving group is comprised of individuals who are currently working (42.6%), those not currently working but who have worked since disability onset (23.5%), those who have not worked since disability onset but are currently looking for work (1.5%), as well as those who have never worked but reported looking for work (0.8%).”
The Kessler survey also found that the most common barrier to employment cited by disabled people was a lack of health insurance or concerns over possibly losing it.
The size of the problem is easy to measure, and there are scores of theories on why disabled people are so consistently under-employed. There are also scores of programs and initiatives, both public and private, aimed at improving the situation. But in an election year, we may legitimately ask, “What more can government do to budge the needle on disability employment?” What long-term structural reforms can candidates propose that will differentiate themselves during the campaign, and, if elected, finally make a real difference? Here are a few ideas:
1. Restructure benefits and healthcare to remove disincentives
Social Security Disability, (SSDI), Supplemental Security Income, (SSI), and to some extent Medicaid and Medicare, are traditionally anchored in the idea that being disabled means being unable to work. Technically, this is still what makes a disabled person eligible for income support and free or low cost health care. Likewise, if a disabled person on any of these benefits starts working and earning income, it raises the question of whether they need benefits anymore.
It has never been a simple matter of “on or off” benefits. Social Security has for a long time included rules called Work Incentives that are supposed to allow recipients to ease into the workforce and make a smooth transition to self-sufficiency. However, the goal is still assumed to be getting off of benefits entirely, and there are limits to how long any particular disabled person can work and still collect benefits. Plus, the settings for how much you can earn and save and still be eligible are woefully out of date, even those that rise yearly with cost of living, and despite recent improvements like the ABLE Act. Even when effective, these regulations are complicated, and full compliance can be difficult.
So most disabled people who work or want to work have to contented with the constant risk of earning just a little too much in a given month, or working for one month longer than a limit, and winding up worse off financially because of a sudden loss of benefits, or worse, an overpayment resulting in a huge repayment debt to Social Security. Most critically, loss of Medicaid, Medicare, or both can render many disabled people unable to work at all … catapulting them in a moment from productive work and rising prosperity to unemployable.
As currently designed, the rules for these programs try to do two somewhat contradictory things: encourage disabled people to work if they can, and terminate their benefits when they are supposedly working enough to support themselves without help. But current rules fail to fully account for how often disabled people in particular need both earned income and benefits to maintain a decent living. They also fail to accommodate the more cyclical, fluctuating, part-time, and non-traditional nature of many disabled people’s work.
Though not fully intended or designed to do this, the combination of these rules and how thresholds are set create what many disabled people instinctively feel is “federally-mandated poverty.” The government gives you a pittance to live on, but if you earn too much on your own you risk losing it all and being worse off than before. Fortunately, potential solutions aren’t hard to find:
- Raise earning and savings limits, not just by a percent or two for “cost of living,” but substantially, and for everyone with a disability getting any kind of public support.
- Slow down or shut off the “clocks” that limit how long disabled people can work while keeping benefits. Extend or eliminate Trial Work Periods, and instead allow disabled people to maintain a stable, sustainable mix of benefits and working.
- Completely detach health insurance coverage from employment status, earnings, and income. Disabled people should be able to keep health insurance whether or not they are working, and regardless of how much they earn. Disabled people need health care more than most, not as a reward for working, but as a necessary condition of being able to work at all.
- Bonus step: Do away with unjust and inhumane “marriage penalties” by allowing any Social Security recipient to marry anyone they want without changes in benefit amounts or eligibility.
Candidates who pledge a serious effort to try any of these more ambitious fixes can make history and attract real interest from disabled voters and their allies.
2. Increase incentives for employers
There is plenty of evidence that hiring disabled people is usually a plus for employers. But while advocates and disabled job applicants themselves continue to make both moral and practical arguments for hiring disabled workers, it doesn’t seem to be enough to change employers’ reticence or overcome their ableist assumptions about the “risks” of hiring disabled people. So along with persuasion, there are a few more structural incentives in place.
Employers can take tax credits and deductions for hiring people with disabilities. This includes credits for hiring, credits to offset the costs of certain disability-related workplace accommodations, and deductions for physical accessibility modifications in the workplace. State Vocational Rehabilitation programs can also provide wage subsidies to employers for newly-hired disabled workers in work tryout and on-the-job training periods. Finally, Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act now requires Federal departments to set specific goals for hiring people with disabilities.
These are all valuable incentives, but they could be improved. Tax credits and wage subsidies can be made more generous or long-lasting. Strengthening hiring mandates is a bit more tricky. Experience suggests that simply setting hiring goals doesn’t do much if key people in Federal departments don’t know about them or take them seriously. That requires an administration that’s genuinely committed to making them work, not just declaring them and taking a bow.
On the other hand, this is also an opportunity for candidates to employ rhetorical support for disabled people in a truly useful way, by getting specific about how they will make their support and commitment real. How, exactly, will the candidate increase and enforce real incentives for employers to hire disabled people? Those who can offer credible answers could gain the attention of disabled voters, even those who have been disappointed in the past by empty promises.
3. End sub-minimum wage
Perceptions of disabled people’s ability to work have changed a lot in recent decades. But there are still widely accepted assumptions that certain disabled people, especially those with “severe” disabilities, mental illness, or cognitive impairments can’t just be hired and set loose to do a good job without extra help. Some of this is prejudice. Some of it is lack of simple accommodations. But some disabled people really do need more training, long-term support, and individually crafted jobs before they can succeed.
As far back as the late 1930s, one tactic the government has used is to allow some disabled people to be paid less than Minimum Wage, based on the idea that they are inherently less “productive” than the average worker. This practice continues today, under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act.Those who continue to support sub-minimum wage say that without it, hundreds of thousands of disabled people would be completely unable to get any paid job at all. From this point of view view, it’s better than nothing, which is assumed to be the only alternative.
However, a lot has changed since the Great Depression. A great many more people with a whole constellation of disabilities have proven that with sufficient training and support they can not only work hard, but work well in an absolute sense. More importantly, the moral justification for sub-minimum wage has all but disappeared. It no longer feels morally defensible to encourage disabled people to work for a pittance, at less than even the minimum pay for other workers, just because they may not work at some arbitrary level deemed “normal.” If we are willing to spend more for intensive training and support for a relatively small number of disabled employees who need it, then we should also be willing to see that they are paid at least minimum wage for their time and effort. It’s a matter of basic fairness and individual dignity.
There are already active bills in Congress, and several states are either considering, or have already banned or set a phase-out of sub-minimum wage. As a campaign issue, its time has come, and many candidates have already endorsed ending the practice. It’s not only fairer on the face of it. Paying disabled workers at least Minimum Wage will also further help increase disabled people’s financial self-sufficiency and empowerment.
At the same time, a strong stand against sub-minimum wage will require a degree of political courage. It’s not necessarily a political winner. There are some who defend the practice because they don’t see a viable alternative and don’t want to see a familiar system disrupted. This includes people whose jobs depend on maintaining the system, and some parents who fear their adult disabled “children” will be left unemployed and idle, with no followup.
But again, this is another opportunity for candidates to make their disability stands meaningful and substantial. Eliminating or phasing out sub-minimum wage, with a strong, viable transition, would be both a meaningful symbolic gesture, and a real investment in the future for people with disabilities.
This is just a small sample of specific ways candidates can stand out on disability and employment. Other ideas include strengthening the employment protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act, recommitting to better and more meaningful Transition Planning for children and youth with disabilities, taking steps to provide better access to assistive technologies and the internet.
Once we start looking deeper into disability and employment, and what can be done to improve it, a few themes emerge:
- Real solutions almost always mean spending more money. There is rarely an inexpensive fix. And despite the usual political barriers, government is still by far the best vehicle to invest in what disabled people need.
- It’s going to be hard to reform old systems like Social Security, or eliminate old practices like sub-minimum wage. Even though most people know what needs to be done, there will be resistance from people who fear any changes will hurt them before helping anyone else.
- In the past, we have tended to view employment as the key to financial security for disabled people, But we need to understand that for disabled people especially, it’s the other way round. Financial security is a key to employment.
Better employment opportunities for people with disabilities don’t have to be an easy, empty promise for politicians. Real solutions are there to be tried. Candidates brave enough to commit to bold action have a chance to win disabled people’s votes and their enthusiasm.
This is the second article in a series on disability issues that could influence disabled people’s votes in the U.S. General Elections this coming November.
Part 1: 5 Disability Issues Candidates Need To Understand For The 2020 Elections
Part 2: 3 Ways Candidates Can Make A Real Difference On Disability Employment
Part 3: 5 Goals And 5 Steps 2020 Candidates Should Embrace On Long Term Care
Part 4: If Accessibility Is Important To You, Ask Your Local Candidates
Part 5: Disabled People Are Afraid For Their Lives. Candidates Need To Listen.