by Zach Morris, School of Social Welfare, University of Berkeley, USA
The Department of Work and Pensions recently released the statistics for those who died after being found “fit for work,” and thus ineligible for disability benefits in the U.K. The Guardian reports that nearly 90 people a month are dying after being found fit for work. Caution is due, however, before interpreting the outcome of the assessment process as the cause of these deaths. Yet, the emergence of these figures and their wide reporting in the press shed light on how the public is coming to perceive the country’s recent experiment with disability benefit cuts. The growing attention to this issue could lead to increasing support for disability benefit recipients, which, as reported in my P&P article on the topic and shown below, has been in decline for many years. If so, now may prove an opportune time for political entrepreneurs to change course and expand access to disability benefits.
An example from U.S. history can illustrate this possible pathway to expansion. In 1981, President Reagan began an ambitious effort to reduce the number of disability benefit recipients in the U.S. By 1984, 490,000 people were terminated from the country’s major disability benefit program. Yet, much like today’s negative press in Britain, the tragic stories of those who committed suicide upon being found ineligible for benefits soon came to dominate news headlines. His political hand forced by the outpouring of sympathy for victimized beneficiaries, Reagan ultimately signed legislation that expanded eligibility onto the disability program beyond where it was when he took office. Though it is unclear whether a similar policy reversal is in store for Britain, the increased scrutiny of the stricter disability assessment process could be setting the stage for such an about face.