Opinion

LABOR SHORTAGE: Disabled Workers Are Now Competing With Immigrants For Jobs

social security disability Shutterstock/zimmytws

Joanne Butler Contributor

What’s the secret to getting disabled people off the Social Security rolls and into the workforce? Answer: a labor shortage. A recent New York Times article discussed how a young man with cerebral palsy eventually decided to forgo government benefits and accept a full-time job. Plus, applications for disability payments are down dramatically – due to the labor shortage. There are many lessons here, including how immigration affects the employment of the disabled.

In normal or high-unemployment times, the only way the disability rolls would shrink would involve workers ‘aging out’ of the worker’s disability program, and going on Social Security’s retirement rolls. (If a person was on Supplemental Security Income (SSI), they would remain in that program as their SSI benefits would be larger than their possible retirement benefits.)

What a difference a strong economy coupled with a labor shortage makes. The difference is so strong that Social Security’s actuary estimated the worker’s disability program would be depleted four years later (at 2032) than previously expected. (SSI is paid for via current revenues.)

For decades, the federal government has spent millions of dollars concocting programs to nudge the disabled to return to the workforce. But no federal program can change a disabled person’s viewpoint regarding entering the workforce.

The man profiled in the Times story, Mr. Christian Borrero, always wanted to work full-time. But, at age 31, he had spent a lifetime receiving disability benefits.

It’s easy for those of us in the workforce to say the disabled ought to work if they can. We’re used to those behaviors that make for a good employee – showing up on time, getting along with other employees, abiding by company rules, and being productive.

For someone who’s been out of the workforce for a long time, or a lifetime, adapting to what an employer wants can be scary. Add to that the fear of losing one’s government benefits, and we end up with a huge psychological obstacle.

In Mr. Borreo’s case, a non-profit group found a part-time job for him in a bank. I think this was an important step, as he discovered that he could fit into an office environment and do what the employer expected.

However, the bank job appears to have been designed for a disabled person, and Mr. Borreo wanted more. He wanted a regular job. But having a full-time job would cancel out his benefits.

That’s because the disability program’s premise is providing income to a person who’s unable to work.

Warning to anyone who hates anything to do with Obamacare: Hold your nose and keep reading.

Besides losing cash benefits, exiting the disability program leads to a loss of Medicare or Medicaid benefits. It’s another obstacle for disabled beneficiaries to overcome if they want to work. Obamacare has removed that fear (for the most part), as people such as Mr. Borreo can purchase health insurance based upon his income.

Further, many people on the rolls are there due to a combination of low education and a mood or affective disorder. Generally, they are physically able, but have mental conditions that are often controllable with pills. Therefore, obtaining non-federal health insurance means they can get the meds they need to be able to work.

And, as Mr. Borreo’s case demonstrates, a tight labor market means employers will train low-skilled employees, as already-trained employees are unavailable.

How does immigration fit into this situation?

Federal disability programs are skewed to favor those with low skills and education. This is the population that, as a policy, the government tries to nudge into the workforce. But who else has low skills and education? Many third-world immigrants.

Mr. Borreo is an American man — taking responsibility for his life. He clearly does not want to be treated like a pet by the government. Luckily for Mr. Borreo, he works as a receptionist, a job that requires fluency in English.

But what if he had the type of job where he was competing with illegal immigrant labor, such as in the janitorial or housekeeping sectors?

Should disabled people who want to work have to compete with low-cost illegal immigrant labor?

Tightening immigration combined with a robust economy results in employers who are ready to take a broader look at their labor pool. That’s good for the disabled, and other populations, such as nonviolent ex-cons.

This is a zero-sum game. In a fantasy world, America would have jobs for everyone. But we don’t, despite our tight labor market. Every job taken by an illegal immigrant that could have been done by a disabled person means America loses. The disabled American remains on federal benefits, doesn’t learn the habits of the world of work, and is a loss to our workforce.

America can do better. Giving our disabled an opportunity to work by keeping a lid on immigration is the right thing to do.

Joanne Butler is a graduate of the Kennedy School at Harvard, was a professional staff member (Republican) at the House Ways and Means Committee, and served in President George W. Bush’s administration. The Ghanaian poet, Kwesi Brew, has described her as ‘vibrant.’


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.