Era of shame may be ending

DAN RODRICKS

April 20, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

They had trouble with their lungs, bad hearts and herniated discs. Some of them couldn't walk without help. Many of them needed anti-depressants or pain-killing drugs. Some were diagnosed schizophrenics. Some could not lift objects that weighed more than five pounds. Most had injuries that rendered them incapable of returning to work.

I remember well when people with such problems started calling to report their new problem -- the federal government.

It was more than a decade ago, back during the Reagan administration's first series of assaults on social programs, when our kindly old president and his hard-line brats set out to ensure that only the "truly needy" got handouts from the government. They wanted to scrape off the leeches. They went after the disabled.

Most of these folks had been unable to hold jobs for years and had been receiving disability benefits through the Social Security Administration. But the Reagan crowd, still heady from its victory in 1980, ordered that thousands of cases be reviewed. It was a kind of big national roundup to check for fakers.

People who once had been declared disabled had to reapply for benefits. Under the new guidelines, many of them did not qualify, even for the minimum of a few hundred bucks a month.

As a result, they could not pay bills. Federal courts later reported foreclosures and evictions of disabled men and women. Some people, victims of mental illness, were so distressed by the mere threat of losing their benefits they relapsed into depression and panic. I remember well the sound of men and women whimpering into telephones. They were confused and angry. They were made to feel like liars and cheats.

"It's a nightmare," an official in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore reported one day back in the early 1980s. Appeals of benefit denials clogged the federal courts and overwhelmed the judges and magistrates who had to consider them. Many judges blasted the Reagan administration for its hard-line approach, and for ignoring law. Courts throughout the country ruled that the administration violated the rights of hundreds of thousands of people. Appeals courts complained that, as people sued for benefits, judges were forced to issue redundant rulings in identical cases because the government would not respect court precedents.

As late as 1988, the Social Security polizei were still taking the hard line, refusing to consider any new disabilities or ailments that developed during the appeals process. If, for example, a person was disabled by a tumor that later turned out to be cancerous, the person could not offer evidence of the cancer without starting a new appeals process.

That's how far the feds went to tighten the so-called "safety net."

Now, more than 10 years later, the government finally has started to loosen it.

According to a report in the New York Times, the feds have agreed to reconsider tens of thousands of cases in which benefits were denied. The agreement, likely to set a national precedent, is part of a proposed settlement of a lawsuit brought by more than 200,000 New York state residents. Those who prove they were wrongfully denied benefits could receive lump sum payments of $3,000 to $6,000 a year for up to 4 1/2 years. I hope those who were deserving -- that is, if they're still alive -- get the benefits they never should have been denied.

Years ago, I reviewed several cases and felt disgust that our government could be such a bully toward its own people. I considered the possibility of a genuine effort to spotlight fraud -- even liberal supporters of social programs recognize the cost of fraud, both in tax dollars and public sentiment -- but that's not what this was. It was a mean-spirited attempt by his revolutionary retinue to reduce spending on a program that Ronald Reagan believed it was his mandate to curtail. He couldn't reduce Social Security spending outright, so he attacked the disability program. Beyond the mere fiscal objectives, there was a cynical motivation -- to strike out symbolically at a vestige of the New Deal, and to mark the start of an era of federal retrenchment. To make its point, all the Reagan administration did was pick on society's weakest links, a relatively small sector of the population that had little or no political power. It was a shameful episode, the human consequences of which will never fully be measured.

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