What Stanley Thornton, Adult Baby, Can Teach Us All About Social Security

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Stanley Thornton, Jr., is a 30-something man who wears a diaper, sucks on a pacifier, and sleeps in a crib that he built. He also collects Social Security disability insurance. (We wrote about him in a May article This Adult Baby Is Our Best Hope to Fix Social Security.)

Stanley's story was all a bit much for Sen. Tom Coburn, who asked the Inspector General to investigate for Social Security fraud, on the basis that someone who can "custom-make baby furniture to support a 350-pound adult" is not disabled and should not qualify for SSDI.

The happy news for Stanley today is that he has been cleared of Social Security fraud and will continue to receive checks from the federal government. Whether this was the right call is not for me to say, as I have no insight into the mental and physical condition of this adult baby, or any adult baby, for that matter. But although the investigation is over, I hope Stanley's story continues to be told, because our Social Security Disability Insurance program is a mess.

One out of every five Social Security dollars is spent in the disability insurance program. The problem isn't so much that we've paying disabled people too much but that we're probably paying too many people who claim to be disabled. Since 1985, Social Security Disability applications have doubled as a share of the population. It is possible, but unlikely, that Ameica's disability population has doubled since the mid-1980s. The more reasonable explanation is that more disabled workers in tough times have figured out that they can get paid to not work. Here's the run-up:

Social Security graph.

In the short run, I suppose, any way to get more money into the economy could be more or less stimulative. In the long run, however, a smarter disability insurance program would instead find ways to support disabled workers. This isn't 1955, after all. A quarter of the country isn't working in manufacturing factories. As the unemployment rate comes down, there will be non-strenuous jobs in the service and technology economy that otherwise disabled people can do. In Supporting Work: A Proposal for Modernizing the U.S. Disability Insurance System, David H. Autor and Mark Duggan made the point that paying the disabled not to work both wastes money and hurts the economy. A better solution would make disability available to all workers and leave most of the money for those who truly were incapable of labor. Shifting disability insurance toward helping people work rather than forcing them to become dependent on the government would be good for workers and good for the economic growth.

The bottom line is that lots of news sites are picking up on this adult baby story and very few of them are explaining that whether or not Stanley is mentally incapable of working in an office, he belongs to a program that badly needs fixing.

Image: CNN

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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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