This Adult Baby Is Our Best Hope to Fix Social Security

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Stanley Thornton, Jr, is a 30-year old man who lives like a baby. He sucks on a pacifier. He wears a diaper. He sleeps in a crib. Watch the video if you don't believe me. But Stanley also collects Social Security disability insurance, and that's where Republicans draw the line.

In a letter from Sen. Tom Coburn to Inspector General Patrick P. O'Caroll Jr., the senator points out that since Stanley can determine appropriate behavior in public, drive himself around, start a website for other adult babies, and "custom-make baby furniture to support a 350-pound adult," he should not qualify for disability insurance.

Whether Stanley is actually disabled is a question for doctors and judges to decide. But as long as we're talking about denying disability insurance to an adult baby, let's talk about fixing disability insurance for everybody else.

That's right folks, we're using an 350-lb adult baby to start a conversation about disability insurance reform. (We'll have more serious news pegs, but none more felicitous than a conservative senator taking on a 30-year old in diapers.) Call it the Palin Peg. When Sarah Palin referred to the independent Medicare panel as a "death panel," it was a wild exaggeration that manged to inspire a real debate about health care. From Atul Gawande's award-winning New Yorker story about the cost of dying, to Evan Thomas' Newsweek cover story "The Case for Killing Granny," a formerly grim and dreary topic was suddenly rendered popular and approachable thanks to Palin's peg.

Sarah doesn't have a monopoly on the Palin peg. Joe Wilson's "you lie!" outburst, for example, inspired an occasionally smart back-and-forth about our responsibility to provide services for illegal immigrants. So here's hoping that Stanley gives us the conversation we need to have about Social Security disability insurance, which has expanded into boondoggle and a quiet fiscal crisis.

Social Security graph.


Social Security Disability applications have doubled as a share of the population since 1985. Are we in the midst of a disability epidemic? Um, not likely. More likely is that healthy Americans discouraged from the awful job market have sought out disability insurance and collected Social Security money even though they're not actually disabled. And why wouldn't they? This program pays people (modestly: the typical monthly check is $1,000) not to work. In 2009, one in five Social Security dollars was spent on disability insurance.

In Supporting Work: A Proposal for Modernizing the U.S. Disability Insurance System, David H. Autor and Mark Duggan argue that by paying the disabled not to work, we're both wasting money and taking productivity out of the workforce by compelling disabled people who can nonetheless work nonphysical jobs to become dependent on government checks.

Social Security disability insurance was designed for the 1950s, when a quarter of the labor force was in manufacturing and employment often meant strenuous labor. In a service and Web economy, thousands of disabled people can still be highly productive in the economy. Autor and Duggan suggest building a universal disability insurance program similar to unemployment insurance, to make disability available to all workers. Shifting disability insurance toward helping people work rather than forcing them to become dependent on the government would both help the economy and save billions of dollars a year.

"Of course, many SSDI recipients are truly incapacitated," James Ledbetter wrote out in a takedown of SSDI in Slate. But many are employable. We need an insurance system that encourages the disabled to work rather than pay them under the condition that they don't. It's time to have this debate. And if we have it this month, you can thank Stanley Thornton, Jr., and the Palin Peg.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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