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Do you remember how they told you that people who lost their jobs at factories would be retrained and then get new jobs elsewhere? They said that moving factories overseas would be good for the economy. Moreover, they said we could make welfare a little less pleasant for welfare recipients and the states they lived in and then these people would end up as contributing members of society, gainfully employed somewhere. In this week’s episode of This American Life“Trends with Benefits” Planet Money‘s Chana Joffe-Walt gives lie to those claims.

It seems that for at least the past twenty years the amount of people on disability has been ballooning and it isn’t like all of these people are I became paraplegic/had my arm torn off from the machines at the factory/farm/etc. disabled. Joffe-Walt went to a town where it seemed that the primary disability that people had was that the country had failed to put them through college or even get them into junior high.  Perhaps even worse is the path from welfare-to-disability. States hire private firms to comb their welfare rolls looking for people who could be transferred from the state welfare rolls to federal

In some communities the only way to get a job is to join the military. We have not reinstated the draft and claim to have “an all volunteer” force, but how voluntary is the decision to join the military when a recruit cannot see any other options. In place of welfare-to-work, you might call this poor-to-war.

Between path from poor-to-war and welfare-to-disability we, as a society, are lying to ourselves about the health of our economy and our country. So are there any alternatives? We seem to be able to find plenty of money to fight unnecessary wars and to build vehicles and equipment the military doesn’t want. Why? Before he left office, President Eisenhower warned us about the power of the military industrial complex. No one seemed to heed his warning, but he was right. No politician wants to see cuts in the defense budget that might lead to less jobs in their home district and the defense budget seems to be the only place where it is safe to put spending. Who would criticize more money spent on defense? In recent years even common sense places to spend money like infrastructure have become suspect.  It seems that the best way to get jobs for your district is to get the military to hire defense contractors in your area. Even if the military decides it does not want whatever widget the defense contractor makes, as long as congress pays for the widget to be made your district will have jobs.

It isn’t as if there haven’t been more rational attempts to take on poverty and unemployment in the past. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did an impressive job with the Works Progress Administration despite pressure from the Right with worries about laziness and corruption and pressure from the Left with labor unions worried that training people would just increase the number of unemployed skilled workers. 3.3 million people were employed by the WPA at its height. The WPA provided almost 8 million jobs over the eight years of its operation. Today, even Obama’s more tepid proposals for stimulus are rejected. Paul Krugman reminds us that we could get out of the economic slump we’re in if we just had the willpower.

So we must ask ourselves whether we prefer to continue limping along at creating jobs through misallocating the defense budget, overspending on defense in general and paying people to be unemployed through disability even if they would prefer to work or whether we, as a nation, are prepared to have a grown-up conversation about how to find meaningful work for the people of our country