Newspapers, disabled: On The Washington Post’s disability article

It’s hard to write about disability in America. It’s especially hard to write about federal Social Security disability payments in rural America.

It’s such a difficult topic because it strikes at the heart of one of the central myths of our civil and economic religion: No matter who you are, where you were born, what creed you adhere to, or what color your skin, you, too, can achieve the American dream of success, fulfillment, and financial security through the magic of hard work.

That hard work is a sufficient condition for success is an American fable at the center of our culture.

Instead of merely dying from his cancer, Walter White of Breaking Bad erupts in paroxysms of productivity, earning millions of dollars for his family through the highly lucrative and illegal methamphetamine trade. That he dies of a gunshot wound in a white supremacist gang’s meth lab is of little consequence. He achieved his goal through hard work and MacGyver-like ingenuity. His family will want for nothing thanks to a generous “grant” from Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz comprised of what’s left of Walter’s illicit earnings.

Likewise, reality television presents a 24-hour-per-day cavalcade of quasi-obsessives doing everything from “extreme” couponing, to performing do-it-yourself renovations on homes they want to sell, to haggling with pawn brokers to make a quick buck on old junk they had in their garage.

It’s engrained in Americans that to be truly American one must drink fully from the cup of an energetic people with an endless supply of schemes and machinations aimed simply at earning a dollar. Those Americans who collect Social Security disability benefits stand in contradistinction to every impulse and desire American culture seeks to imbue in its ideal citizen.

As such, a person collecting disability benefits from the federal government represents a challenge to a hegemonic worldview. Accordingly, and in light of their transgressive stance, they are looked at askance by the cognoscenti (see, e.g., this 2013 report by the CBS news program 60 Minutes).

That brings us to today’s topic, a recent article in The Washington Post, titled “Generations, Disabled.”

The headline variously appears as “Generations, Disabled” on the website of The Washington Post, “One Family. Four generations of disability benefits…” on search engines like Google, and “One Family. Four generations of disability benefits. Will it continue?” on the social media site Facebook. The article’s subheading announces that “a family on the fringes prays for the ‘right diagnoses.’”

The article itself follows the story of a grandmother in Missouri who is struggling to make ends meet and to provide for the basic needs of four grandchildren (aged four through 12) and her 32-year-old daughter who has a cognitive disability. It chronicles her quest to have her twin grandsons re-declared disabled so that the family can receive an extra $1,128 per month in federal disability payments. Without disability checks to help care for the twin boys, the family of six receives Social Security disability payments that total $24,060 per year—enough to put them $8,520 below the income level at which the federal government considers them impoverished.

The author of the piece, Terrence McCoy, treats the family’s poverty and prescription medications as moral failings. The opening line of the piece presents Kathy Strait and her family, even the 10-year-old twin boys, as junkies who are glad that, despite the lack of food and money, “they still had their pills.” They speed around the shambolic trailer they call home until someone nearly kills a puppy by dropping it on its head.

All this in the first two paragraphs.

Throughout the piece, it is clear that McCoy has taken up the mantle of American culture and civil religion against the Poors. He considers Kathy (and, by extension, her family; and, by further extension, since he chose this family as the stand-in for all Social Security disability recipients, all people who receive Social Security disability checks) to be a grifter. He seems to believe she is out to swindle the good, tax-paying citizens of America out of their hard-earned money through a federal scheme.

Consider this example. At the end of a poignant paragraph documenting how Kathy, who is not an expert on mental health, mused out loud about the potential variety of her grandsons’ mental illnesses in the same way millions of Americans too-casually diagnose themselves, their family and their friends with bipolar disorder, OCD, ADHD, etc., McCoy deploys an aside that serves as a wink and a nod to the knowing reader: “Everyone, it seemed, suffered from something.” In other words, everyone has a sob story.

Likewise, the metaphor of a rampant opioid addiction afflicting rural and exurban America as a stand in for direct cash assistance from the government is a bit of ham-fisted moralizing. McCoy expresses his contempt for Kathy and family by casually noting hanging signs detailing the dangers of addiction and dependence at the clinic they were visiting to renew their prescriptions. His observation couldn’t help but remind the politically astute reader of Mitt Romney’s infamous 47% comments.

Kathy doesn’t seem like the type of person you would pick if you wanted to argue that Social Security disability is fine just the way it is. Her family’s life seems painful, chaotic, and full of small indignities and humiliations (not least of which is this article).  They do seem, for better or for worse, dependent on the checks they receive from the federal government.

But what seems askew here is the focus on the minutiae of Kathy’s family’s life. In the end, the political argument here is not about the supposedly sordid lives of Kathy and her family, so it’s a shame that McCoy and The Washington Post chose to focus so heavily on this angle.

Because we live in a society that so privileges the bootstraps personal narrative, I would venture to say that many of us, in the privacy of our thoughts, have had the experience of seeing someone who is collecting some sort of benefit and wondered if they really deserve it. But that sort of question (or, if you arrive at an answer, judgment) places too heavy a weight on our prima facie understandings of others. We should expect more self-consciousness and probity from our journalism than we display in a passing, judgmental thought in the grocery store checkout line. Shamefully, what we got from The Washington Post, in this case, was a reverse expression of Blackstone’s formulation: it’s better that 10 people with legitimate disabilities starve than one with suspect motives gets a free meal.









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