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How Being Laid Off Taught Me We Need To Reform Unemployment Subsidies


Upon waking up this morning, I thought about how to organize my day. Perhaps I should tackle home cleaning projects in the morning while my energy level was high, then catch up on some reading in the afternoon. Or maybe I should read in the morning while eating breakfast, then clean later in the day. Maybe I should fit in a phone call to a friend I haven’t spoken to in a few months or get to work on a couple of activities I had been tasked with for the upcoming neighborhood block party.

By evening, I had done none of those things. I instead spent several hours at the computer, reading interesting news, browsing for clothes I didn’t need, applying for a couple of jobs online, and doing just enough housework to keep the kitchen from smelling like rotten banana peels.

In July this year, after spending 13 productive years at a public policy research organization, I was laid off. We all were. The organization shut its doors. It was sudden, unexpected, and dispassionate. No tearful goodbyes or three-month severance. I spent the day afterward digesting what had just happened, sitting at home nearly motionless and emotionless like a crash test dummy. What would I do now?

Unemployment: From Fun to Depressing

After the initial few days of shock, the first month of my leisure time was pretty awesome — sleeping later, not having to rush through lunches, and no more traffic jams. I could watch a late-night TV show or catch up on a book into the wee hours and not have to worry about getting up at 5:30 the next morning.

But the “awesomeness” faded quickly. Even the novelty of the brand-new vacuum cleaner I bought, complete with various bells and whistles, wore off after I used it a few times on every horizontal and vertical surface in the house. My domestic bliss wouldn’t last much longer. When I was working I relished spending weekends at home with my husband, watching movies and just enjoying the peace of not having to be somewhere or interact with coworkers who could, at times, be downright annoying. But now I found myself wanting to get out of the house for any reason, even if just a trip to the dry cleaners to drop off my husband’s shirts and hear the cashier say, “They’ll be ready tomorrow after five.”

As a public policy researcher, I’ve authored several reports on the flawed incentives of the Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) program. Federal disability benefits are available to most qualified workers who are physically or mentally unable to keep working. Currently, 9 million former workers receive these disability payments. This does not include an additional 3 million workers’ dependents, who are also eligible for disability benefits under certain criteria.

We Label Many More People Disabled Than We Used To

The reasons for a disability diagnosis have changed considerably over the past few decades. For instance, with significant improvements in cancer detection and treatment, neoplasms (tumors) are now just 3 percent of beneficiaries’ diagnoses, compared to 16 percent in 1981. On the other hand, mental disorders, which were just 10 percent of beneficiaries’ diagnoses in 1981, now account for one-third, due in part to relaxed criteria for diagnosing mental disorders.

In fact, mental disorders are now the second leading diagnoses for disability beneficiaries, behind musculoskeletal disorders. While there are different categories for mental disorders, mood disorders are the largest sub-category of mental disorder. Yes, we’re talking clinical depression, anxiety and bipolar disorders that are, for the most part, treatable and tend to improve over time with the right medication and therapy.

No doubt, depression is serious and can often be debilitating of accomplishing day-to-day tasks. The pat advice from well-intentioned others to “cheer up” or “snap out of it” is rarely ever helpful. Absent a physical inability to work, however, claiming disability benefits for mood disorders that are independent of physical disability conditions may be a cure worse than the disease.

A psychiatrist once described to me the vicious cycle of being on disability for depression. An individual discontinues work due to the severity of the depression, claims disability benefits, and finds temporary relief in not having to get through an eight-hour workday. But the disruption in routine and the individual’s often diminished sense of purpose — as well as financial hardships from not working — further exacerbate depression.

No Rewards for Getting Life Back Together Again

What does this have to do with my employment situation, one might ask? I can now see the perpetual cycle of unplanned unemployment and depression. Having spent more than one-third of each day in work or work-related activities outside my home, it is now up to me to fill those hours each day that seem to disappear into a black hole. I can only imagine how difficult it would be for a person who is chronically depressed and in need of professional treatment.

Unfortunately, for disability recipients who improve with treatment and wish to try employment again, the SSDI program limits how much they can earn without losing their benefits. This makes SSDI an all-or-nothing program that does not reward people for trying to piece their lives back together and slowly re-establish a routine.

I am certainly not implying that full-time work is the key to happiness and purpose. There are plenty of worthwhile pursuits in life that do not involve 9 to 5 employment, as evidenced by those planning retirement, furthering their education, or raising families and caring for loved ones. But ask anybody who has experienced an unplanned and immediate disruption in the life they were familiar with — whether it be a hurricane survivor or a layoff survivor — and they will tell you that recovering their daily routine and purpose is truly an uphill battle.