There’s a lot of talk today about jobs going unfilled. Employers, especially small businesses, are having a hard time serving their customers because they can’t find enough people to work. This could be explained by the fact that the unemployment rate is under 4 percent. Maybe there aren’t enough people to work because most prospective employees have jobs already.

But we all know that is not true. There are plenty of people who could be working but aren’t, because a lot of them don’t want to. For too many, work has lost its dignity, which, more than anything else, makes the effort of work seem pointless.

Still, how is it that so many people aren’t working, yet we still have a low unemployment rate? The simple reason is because so many people have dropped out of the work force. They have other means of support, so they don’t even count anymore.

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Behind the Department of Labor’s unemployment statistics lurks the fact that the unemployment rate counts only those who are actively looking for work. To get the fuller picture behind the unemployment rate, you must look at the labor participation rate, which counts the entire number of people in the workforce who are working or looking for work, but not the number of people of working age who aren’t.

That picture is especially grim.

The labor participation rate for men aged 25 to 54 has fallen from 95 percent in the 1960s to nearly 80 percent today. Sixteen percent of all people of prime working age in the United States today are not working, and are not looking for work. That’s one in six people. This number is larger than during the Great Depression in 1940. 

The dirty secret is that more than half of all people not working, and also not looking for work, are on disability insurance.

Disability insurance is a crucial source of income for those whose experience with illness makes it impossible to work. I was on short-term disability a couple of times as I recovered from hospitalizations and learned to manage life with a mental illness. Still, the most important day in my journey with bipolar disorder was the day my claim for Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) was denied. I would have to learn to work again.

Work can keep a person productive. It can add meaning to life. It gets one out of the house. It is social. It builds communities. Work is necessary to achieve the independence that eludes people who perpetually exist on disability insurance, those regularly called upon to certify that they are not well so they can keep receiving their benefits.

Fortunately, I was able to find jobs I could handle and ones that provided health insurance. It was not the high-flying career that I was originally set on when psychotic mania took hold, but it was dignified, and I was able to take care of myself. Medicine and therapy set me up for success, but work made life worthwhile.

It is a tragedy that most people with bipolar disorder do not work, and possibly never will. The unemployment rate for them is 60 percent. 

Today, nearly half of all long-term disability claims are for a mental illness, and mood disorders like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder are the largest category of such claims. But many of these people can and should work.

Quality of life suffers greatly when out of the workforce. People who don’t work are far less likely to get married and have a family. Home ownership is nearly nonexistent in this group, and half of the people who don’t work use opioids every day. This is no way to recover from an illness and become a productive, responsible member of society.

Of course, there are good reasons why some people are on long-term disability. Many disabled people cannot work, and it is good that we have programs to provide for them. But once on SSDI, it is difficult to leave it. According to Social Security Administration statistics, only 3.7 percent of the people who go on SSDI ever fully return to work.

Too many people, however, have given up. We have to make it possible for them to try, fail, get up, and try again. We have to encourage people to work.

Sixteen percent of all people of prime working age in the United States today are not working, and are not looking for work. That’s one in six people. This number is larger than during the Great Depression in 1940.

We must develop more programs to help people on disability return to work. There is a huge, very valid fear among many on disability that if they return to work and it doesn’t work out, they will lose their benefits for good. But SSDI provides for a transitional work period that mitigates this risk. 

Also risky in a return to work is the loss of health insurance provided to those on SSDI through Medicaid. Some jobs do not provide health insurance, especially the part-time jobs that are often a bridge from disability to full-time work. But there are programs that make provisions for healthcare for low-income workers.

The biggest obstacle is that it is difficult to navigate the often contradictory policies on benefits and wages. The SSDI system must be simplified, and work must be encouraged. It shouldn’t be easy to live completely off of income taken from people who are working. We must lobby for and develop policies that make it desirable and possible for people to re-enter the workforce and receive the full, life-enhancing benefits of work.

Recovery from the dark hole of disability insurance depends on independence, productivity, and purpose. These are available through meaningful work, which should become a key treatment goal for anyone trapped in the prison of SSDI. Work can make a healthy life a life worth living.

The jobs are out there. Let’s motivate people to take them.

(Sources: The Center for Studying Disability Policy; Men Without Work by Nicholas Eberstadt)

George Hofmann is the author of Practicing Mental Illness – Meditation, Movement and Meaningful Work to Manage Challenging Moods. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, their daughter, and two poorly behaved dogs.

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