In defense of Social Security Disability Insurance

"Over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said in 2015. “Join the club. Who doesn’t get up a little anxious for work every day and their back hurts?”

It’s a common line from conservative politicians: that the Social Security Disability Insurance program is just welfare for people too lazy to work.

Many of those politicians haven’t spent much time at all actually talking to the people they’re denouncing — people like Randy Pitts.

Before his body started to fail him, Pitts, a 43-year-old in Lake County, Tennessee, was a public servant. He loved his job as a 911 dispatcher for the county’s emergency services; he recounts with pride the story of the day he kept residents calm as trees crashed around them in an ice storm. He was elected county commissioner, a position he used to champion solar power.

Then in 2013, Pitts, who already had moderate arthritis and herniated discs in his back, was diagnosed with renal failure, an extreme form of kidney disease — the beginning of a chain of events that would leave Pitts and his family dependent on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), which offers assistance for workers who develop disabilities and illnesses that render them incapable of working any longer.

Pitts’s renal failure led to a medical emergency that left him with what a doctor told him was likely post-traumatic stress disorder. Too weak to stand and talk, he campaigned for reelection but narrowly lost his seat. At his dispatcher job, he struggled to remain calm and form clear sentences to reassure callers. In 2015, struggling mentally and physically, he had to give up his job; these days, he’s unable to dress himself without help from his teenage son.

Pitts’s son works, as does his daughter, who is in college. But the family’s major lifeline is the $1,196 per month Pitts gets through Social Security Disability Insurance — which has been, over the past several years, under intense political assault from the likes of Sen. Paul.

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