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In a region beset with economic and health woes, tens of thousands of workers have qualified for checks at a rate unrivaled north of Kentucky. Now nearly 60, she said she hopes to supplement her monthly disability checks by landing a part-time job, maybe answering phones or doing computer work, though she has no use of her right hand from her cerebral palsy – and the recent onset of multiple sclerosis.“I never knew I was going to get to this point. It signifies a region where post-recession aging workers in poor health and with few prospects for work have turned to federal disability benefits as a last resort, a replacement income for their long-lost unemployment checks. Her last job, nearly 15 years ago, meant working on her feet for eight hours despite a metal brace on her right foot.The center concluded that any significant reductions to the Medicaid program would force some of the disabled out of their homes and into institutional settings, such as nursing homes.One broad category of disability recipients includes victims of accidents or debilitative diseases ranging from cancer to congestive heart failure and multiple sclerosis, as well as developmental disabilities. The second ‒ and far more contested and controversial ‒ disabled population is dominated by those with “musculoskeletal” problems such as a failing back, knees or hips, and those with some form of mental illness.Armed with a high school diploma or less, they were unlikely to find office work.Gary Kozma, an attorney based in Gaylord who specializes in disability cases, said Social Security checks for the disabled have become almost a form of early retirement in some rural areas where older, unskilled people with debilitating health problems can’t find work.“I think when the economy is bad, when there are no jobs to be found, these people think, ‘Maybe I can get disability,’” Kozma said.Northern Michigan is part of a national phenomenon that emerged two decades ago and especially during the Great Recession of 2008-10, when an abrupt decline in blue-collar jobs left certain workers – mostly in their 50s, suffering from chronic medical conditions – unemployed or underemployed for years at a time.
People apply through one of two federal disability programs: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), an earned benefit program for those who accumulate work credits whose payments are linked to their average earnings before they became disabled, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is based more on financial need, regardless of whether you worked or paid into Social Security.Those who work inside the system say many with disabling conditions either decline to apply for benefits or they were rejected by the daunting application process.In Roscommon County, the area around Houghton Lake, nearly 1-in-4 residents (23.5 percent) lives in poverty.For a northern Michigan worker with a broken-down body, especially those 50 or older, they are often labeled as unemployable. If good jobs are hard to find, then the alternative to DI might well be an even lower income.”first-year budget proposal would eliminate four federal block grant programs that assist seniors, the poor and the disabled with affordable housing, home heating bills, public transportation and other anti-poverty services.Advocates for the disabled say these people are weeded out from the hiring process by subtle discriminatory practices based on age and ability, or they fail to keep their jobs due to physical constraints. In agriculture, while Michigan crop yields remain strong, the farming sector is shrinking and offers fewer job opportunities for unemployed workers who once toiled in manual labor.“Not many new people migrate into the region, and these things feed back on themselves,” Ballard said. Disability Network Northern Michigan, said his clientele would also feel the effects of proposed presidential cutbacks to Meals on Wheels, in-home nursing visits and other programs that allow independent living for the disabled in their own home.
Those who successfully navigate a system marked by bureaucratic red tape, waiting periods of about two years and can prove their condition prevents them from taking available jobs will receive a monthly check, on average, of The payments are meager yet the number of people receiving disability nationally has risen sharply in recent years, in part due to aging Baby Boomers and millions of women who joined the workforce in the 1970s and now approach retirement age.