I've always admired the reporters and producers at This American Life for unearthing issues that no one else seems to be noticing. This past weekend, I was catching up on some older podcasts I'd bookmarked, and ended up fascinated by Trends with Benefits, an hour-long look at why twice as many Americans are receiving federal disability payments as they were 15 years ago.

Even more disturbing, there are "pockets" in the U.S. with especially high concentrations of people receiving disability checks -- up to 25 percent of a population in certain counties. Like Hale County, Alabama, where Chana Joffe of Planet Money spent six months trying to figure out exactly why this is going on, instead of dismissing it as rampant freeloading. (Neither can it be fully explained by obesity). Disability programs now cost the U.S. $260 billion a year, which is eight times more than we spend on welfare.

One of her most surprising interviews is with a woman named Ethel Thomas, who's on disability for back pain. In the excerpt below, Ethel responds to a question Chana asked her earlier about what kind of work she would deem ideal.

Ethel Thomas:
I thought about it, and I said that the perfect job, it would be like I would sit at a desk like the Social Security people, and just weed out all the ones that come in and file for disability...


Chana Joffe:
At first, I thought Ethel's dream job was to be the lady at Social Security, because she thought she'd be good at weeding out the cheaters. But no...it turned out Ethel wanted this woman's job because she gets to sit. That's it. And when I asked her, OK, but why that lady? Why not any other job where you get to sit? Ethel said she could not think of a single other job where you get to sit all day. She said she'd never seen one.

It just did not seem possible to me that there would be a place in America today where someone could go her whole working life without any exposure to jobs where you get to sit, until she applied for disability and saw a woman who gets to sit all day. There had to be an office or storefront in town where Ethel would have seen a job that's not physical.

And I started sort of casually looking. At McDonald's, they're all standing. There's a truck mechanic, no. A fish plant, definitely no. I looked at the jobs listings in Greensboro-- occupational therapist, McDonald's, McDonald's, truck driver heavy lifting, KFC, registered nurse, McDonald's. I actually think it might be possible that Ethel could not conceive of a job that would accommodate her pain.

Chana goes on to build a theory that the low availability of desk jobs in some areas of the country is spurring waves of under-educated people to file for disability. “Being poorly educated in a rotten place, that in and of itself has become a disability,” says Joffe, who offers a host of other reasons for the spike. One of the strangest culprits is an agency named PCG that wins hefty checks from the states they contract with when they transfer a welfare recipient to disability. The states, in turn, get federal incentives for "removing" people from welfare. Despite the company's less-than-admirable goals (to get as many people on disability as possible), it's easy to believe that someone would eventually abuse the incentives to make a profit. It's harder to believe the "invisible desk job" theory.

Where Are Desk Jobs Invisible?
If Joffe's theory holds true anywhere, it's most likely to hold true in states with the highest percentages of people on workers' disability. West Virginia, Arkansas, and Alabama post the highest rates, with 9, 8.2 and 8.1 percent on disability, respectively.


Tennessee is not much better, with a 6.5 percent disability rate. Scott Morefield has managed the Bristol, Tenn. branch of AtWork Personnel Services since 2005. Morefield estimates that 90 percent of their open positions are industrial, and 10 percent are clerical. But the concept of zero exposure to office work?

“It’s hard to imagine. After all, janitors clean offices,” he said. “Maybe some of them (and fast food workers, etc.) think a desk job is beyond their reach (whether or not that’s really true), but it’s hard to imagine them not knowing they exist. There are probably some exceptions, but I doubt there are many.”

Rich Kramer, CEO of iKruit Staffing in Cleveland, Tenn., estimates a similarly high ratio of industrial to white collar work.

“The makeup of employers around here is probably 80 to 85 percent light-to-middle industrial vs. white collar work,” he said. “In the Southeast, especially in small towns like ours, there’s a segment of our society that’s lower-educated, so yeah, I can believe that [some people wouldn’t be aware of desk jobs].”

If true, this scenario suddenly makes sitting all day seem like a great privilege, though there are countless health articles telling us otherwise. It probably goes without saying that this segment of society would also not know about this phenomenon. (Or this one, of which Gregg Dourgarian is a fan).

Whether or not you think it's possible that some working Americans aren't able to name a single office job, I do recommend Trends with Benefits. If you're ready for some sobering stats, that is.

Tags: News