Those at the top of the U.S. economic pyramid continue to benefit from the economic and social exclusion of disabled people. The more marginalized groups can be pushed to the periphery, the more wealth is controlled and owned by the super-rich. People of color, LGBTQ people, and women have historically been subject to a similar economic and social apartheid. Disabled people have long been subject to these tactics in a private, market-based economy controlled by the few.
And the 1 percent’s stakes in maintaining the status quo are particularly high, as financial capital and neoliberal economics continue to dominate the 21st century. Thanks to a rigged tax system that has shifted the burden to the working-class, the super-rich now have access to an even larger slice of the pie—corporate profits after taxes are at a record high, while American working class wages have stagnated since the late 1970s.
Disabled people in the U.S. experience oppression at a disproportionate level in contemporary society. From a radical left perspective, capitalism is at the root of much of this oppression. Disability activists Marta Russell and Jean Stewart help to articulate this social and economic apartheid while discussing what they call “disablement.” For Russell and Stewart, capitalism “has created the social condition which we are calling ‘disablement’ by excluding disabled persons from full participation in society through segregation, containment, and repression” (Jean Stewart and Marta Russell, Monthly Review, “Disablement, Prison, and Historical Segregation,” 2001, Volume 53, Issue 03).
Disability: Not What You Think It Is
Disabled people are the largest minority group in America. According to a 2010 U.S. Census Bureau study, 19 percent of American citizens are disabled people—nearly 57 million U.S. citizens. To put it in perspective, the Census Bureau records indicate African Americans comprise 13.1 percent of the population; Hispanic and Latin Americans make up 16.9 percent. Unfortunately many Americans likely consider the term “disabled” a pejorative—a stage of life they would simply like to avoid. Disability rights activists, however, proudly proclaim the term as an oppressed group—as well as a term of endearment. This is not to mention the arbitrary nature of who becomes labeled as “disabled” and who is labeled “able-bodied” by the state, by workplaces, or school systems.
As radical disability activist A.J. Withers reminds us, “[w]omen, queer people, trans people, racialized people, poor people and other marginalized people were all considered disabled at one point in history, largely under the umbrella of feeble-minded and/or degenerate.”
Perhaps the term “able-bodied” is more troubling, since we all certainly embody both “ability” and “disability.” Many radical activists prefer the term “disabled person” to the more common “person with a disability,” since they view contemporary society as inherently disabling and inaccessible, as opposed to the notion of an individual having some kind of internal malfunction—often arbitrarily defined by specialists, with an emphasis on not being able to conform to profit-driven models of education and labor.
Whose Economy Is It Anyway?
An honest discussion regarding the “segregation, containment, and repression” faced by disabled people must first discuss the current neoliberal economic status quo, which doesn’t work well for anyone—except the 1 percent. The trend in American economics over the past 30-plus years is an international travesty. Dennis Domrzalski points out that, “despite productivity gains of nearly 24 percent between 2000 and 2012, wages were flat or declined for the bottom 60 percent of workers, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute [EPI]” (Dennis Domrzalski, Albuquerque Business First, “For most of us, productivity gains don’t mean higher wages,” 8/21/13). According to the aforementioned EPI study, productivity grew 74.5 percent, while wages grew only 5 percent from 1979-2012.
The wealth created by all of this increase in worker productivity is, in fact, going somewhere. It shouldn’t be terribly shocking that corporate profits are at a record high. As Jack Rasmus recently wrote, “corporate income tax effective rates and tax payments [have] been in a long term decline, but lately in a short run free-fall” (Jack Rasmus, Z Magazine, “The Great Corporate Tax Shift,” December 2013). Rasmus points to the fact that in the 1960s, corporate profits were taxed roughly 40 percent, on average. Today the rigged tax system allows corporations to relish in a record-low 12 percent effective tax rate (on corporate profits).
And the Obama administration is as business-friendly as many of the most pro-market, right wing administrations of the past. According to Bloomberg, corporate after tax profits have grown by 171 percent since President Obama took office.
An economic system with the political support of Washington, which seems to have a fixation on subsidizing the super-rich, is bound to create mass income inequality and poverty. The capitalist economy is ill-equipped to deal with poverty on its own, according to a recent Columbia University study. It is the social safety net that has prevented mass amounts of poverty since the 1960s. The Washington Post reported that in 2012, “the safety net helped reduce the percentage of Americans in poverty from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent” and that, “the economy by itself has failed to improve the lives of the very poor over the past 50 years. Without taking into account the role of government policy, more Americans—29 percent—would be in poverty today, compared with 27 percent in 1967” (Zachary A. Goldfarb, Washington Post, “Study: U.S. poverty rate decreased over past half-century thanks to safety-net programs,” 12/9/13). While the wealth created by massive productivity increases is siphoned to the 1 percent, poverty increases for marginalized groups. Disabled people are no exception.
Disability And Poverty: An Unnecessary Story
The disproportionate poverty faced by disabled people doesn’t have to exist. It’s one of the many externalities of an anti-democratic economy with skewed priorities run by a few at the top of the hierarchy. Guaranteed jobs-and-housing—secondary to an affirmative action program for disabled people in universities, workplaces, and labor union decision making bodies —and, of course, a livable wage for all workers, could prevent much of this. However, this could only happen if a radical priority shift occurred in American life.
One needn’t go to the dissident press to learn just how exclusionary the economy is for disabled people. The Census Bureau records indicate the statistics are damning. The Census Bureau stated that less than “one-half of individuals aged 21 to 64 with a disability were employed….” Hence the contemporary American economy gives rise to 58.9 percent unemployment for those who are identified as disabled in this age group. The Census Bureau compared the number of non-disabled people: “79.1 percent of people in this age group without disabilities were employed” (Matthew W. Brault, U.S. Census Bureau, “Americans with Disabilities: 2010,” July 2012).
Without adequate employment, disabled people have the highest percentage of poverty for any minority group in the U.S. (roughly 28 percent), only rivaled by American Indians and Alaska Natives (27.0 percent), and Blacks or African Americans (25.8 percent). It’s also worth noting that in rural, poor areas, there are more disabled people—a 2000 Census Bureau statistic stated that 40 percent of all disabled people lived in Southern states, which are on average poorer.
The high unemployment rates may suggest that disabled people are less reliable as employees. This contradicts the U.S. Department of Education’s findings. A social justice group, Disability Funders Network, reported the U.S. Department of Education’s conclusions: “workers with disabilities are rated consistently as average or above average in performance, quality and quantity of work, flexibility, and attendance.” This contradicts the traditional, abelist narrative—that disabled people are less capable than so-called “abled-bodied” individuals.
Instead of prioritizing the 28 percent poverty rate of the nation’s largest minority group, Washington continues to fatten up the bloated defense budget—not to mention a quasi-religious practice of corporate welfare spending. The Washington, DC-based think tank the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reported that in 2012, 19 percent of federal tax dollars (i.e., $689 billion) went to the defense budget. The editors of Bloomberg stated the following regarding corporate welfare: “The federal government directly spends between $75 billion and $100 billion a year on everything from farm subsidies to research grants. Include indirect benefits from things like tariffs and corporate tax exclusions, and the favors granted by local and state governments, and the total is much higher—probably more than $1 trillion” (Bloomberg, “Ending corporate welfare one program at a time,” 2/4/13). U.S. defense spending surpasses any other nation by a long shot. “Face the Facts USA,” a project of George Washington’s School of Media and Public Affairs stated that the U.S. spends “58 percent” of the “$1.19 trillion” spent by the “world’s top 10 military powers.”
A far more conservative percentage of federal dollars goes directly towards disabled people. According to the CBPP using spending data from 2010, 20 percent of all so-called “Entitlement” programs (i.e., Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid/CHIP, and Safety Net Programs) is spent on services for disabled people. This would roughly account for $382 billion. Again, compared to the $689 billion spent on defense—or the outrageous $1 trillion (after loopholes and local and state government handouts) annual budget for corporate welfare—the amount spent on services for disabled people is a pea on a mountaintop. This is not to mention the thousands of disabled people who are pushed into “sheltered work”—a legal loophole which allows companies to employ disabled people for much less than the already astronomically low minimum wage. The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) stated the following regarding the practice of sheltered work, or more appropriately, “segregated work”: “Only 20% of people with disabilities are in the workforce with over 400,000 of them stuck in sheltered workshops earning on average only $175 per month. Few receive health care or the other benefits typical of average American worker. And because of the nature of segregated work—in which worker with disabilities are hidden and isolated away—there continues to be instances of exploitation, abuse and neglect” (Curt Decker, National Disability Rights Network, “Beyond Segregated and Exploited,” April 2012).
Sheltered work is an exaggerated microcosm of the overall trend in capitalism to provide workers with low-paying jobs at the expense of enriching the 1 percent. Unfortunately two other trends indicated with oppressed groups marginalized by the profit-driven economy are homelessness and incarceration. Like other oppressed groups, disabled people make up disproportionate numbers of both.
Homelessness and Disability
Research shows that disabled people—i.e. people with physical, cognitive, or emotional disabilities—make up a disproportionate amount of the homeless population. Of course, homelessness doesn’t have to exist. In the largest, richest economy in the world, homelessness could easily be eliminated with a priority shift. Tankuka Loha, of Amnesty International USA, points to the fact that “approximately 3.5 million people in the U.S. are homeless,” while there are simultaneously “18.5 million vacant homes in the country.” In other words, for every homeless person in the U.S., there are at least 5 vacant homes—an easily viable solution to end homelessness.
Further, the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, the basis for international human rights, clearly defines housing as a basic human right. Article 25 of the Declaration articulates this clearly: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself [sic] and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
While the international treaty doesn’t go far enough for many individuals of the radical left, true enforcement of the United Nations document would systematically do away with homelessness in wealthy countries like the U.S. And homelessness is a serious issue for disabled people—whether individuals deal with mental health, cognitive or physical issues. Points to consider regarding the homeless population and disability: Michele Diament of Disability Scoop reported that “More than 40 percent of America’s homeless population is people with disabilities and the number appears to be rising, according to an annual report on homelessness from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).” The National Coalition for the Homeless states that: “20 to 25 percent of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness.” According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), “Over 60% of people who are chronically homeless have experienced lifetime mental health problems.” A 2009 report published by the National Coalition for the Homeless stated that 13 percent of the homeless population is physically disabled.
For a group that faces a 28 percent poverty level, disabled people are more likely to endure either temporary or chronic homelessness. The Tennessee-based National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC) states the following regarding potential root causes of disabled people becoming homeless: “Diminishing affordable housing, depressed wages, higher unemployment, and decreased access to health insurance coverage over the past two decades has placed an increasing number of individuals and families with disabilities at risk of homelessness, and makes leaving homelessness more difficult” (National Health Care for the Homeless Council, “Disability, Employment & Homelessness, 2011 Policy Statement,” 2011).
The NHCHC goes further to state the following: “Disability causes and prolongs homelessness.” It’s not surprising that a group pushed to the margins of the economy—often pushed into “segregated work,” like 400,000 disabled people in America—also face homelessness. A third disturbing and related trend is disproportionate rates of incarceration.
Disability and Incarceration
American anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman asked some poignant questions regarding the prison system in the U.S.: “Prison, a social protection? What monstrous mind ever conceived such an idea? Just as well say that health can be promoted by a widespread contagion” (Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays).
Although Goldman’s questions and her point were stated in 1917, we might ask similar questions about the prison system in 2014. Disabled people, like other groups pushed to the periphery of the U.S. economy, make up a disproportionately large number of those individuals incarcerated. For disabled people, the prisons are, as the The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) states, “the ‘new asylums’—a costly response to mental health care.”
The NDRN states that “as many as 50 percent of prisoners have a mental illness or other type of disability.”
As Paul Boden of the Huffington Post reported, “a severely mentally ill person is three times more likely to be in jail or prison than in a state mental hospital.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2006 that “56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners and 64 percent of local jail inmates…” had severe mental health-related issues.
Paul Boden also reported in the Huffington Post on a disturbing relic of the past regarding disabled people in the prison population: “There is precedent for locking up mentally ill people at the current alarming rates. In the middle of the 19th century, jails were filled with indigent mentally ill people criminalized under so-called poor laws, which were imported from England [to the U.S.] during colonial times and used to control the movement of the poor and to distinguish those considered ‘deserving’ from those deemed ‘undeserving’ of aid. The ‘undeserving poor’ were punished in jails and workhouses” (Paul Boden, Huffington Post, “It’s Madness: The Incarceration of Disabled Homeless People in the US,” 9/7/2011).
Sofia Kirby with the Center for American Progress reported that people of color “account for 60 percent of those imprisoned.” People of color and disabled people have the largest poverty rates for all groups in the U.S.—a disturbing trend which only further strengthens Boden’s argument regarding the troubling history of poor laws and the connection to our current state of affairs.
Many believe that to achieve social and economic justice the prison system must be abolished. Prison abolitionist Angela Y. Davis writes that the end of the prison industrial complex must be coupled with the following: “demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance” (Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?).
The U.S. prison system has increasingly become a warehouse of the poor. Until a more humane replacement for the prison industrial complex comes to fruition, it is unlikely the targeting of disabled people and people of color will cease.
Disability and Social Justice In The Future
As mentioned, disability activists Marta Russell and Jean Stewart stated that capitalism “has created the social condition” which has led to this social and economic apartheid of disabled people—they use the phrase “disablement.” The dominant economic mode, then, requires restructuring, and economic and social alternatives are necessary for exploration.
The following would certainly make a monumental impact the day-to-day lives of disabled people—as well as all individuals in American society: a livable wage with guaranteed jobs; public, single payer health care for all, with an equal emphasis for mental health concerns; free access to education; increased freedom to organize on the job via unionization; guaranteed housing; and radical prison reform. However, in order to prevent the economic apartheid perpetuated by capitalism, it will likely require much more even than the major aforementioned reforms: a democratic economy controlled by all people—from production to decision-making—is likely what is necessary.
An economy based on principles of solidarity and mutual aid would be a vast improvement over the bureaucratic, neoliberal status quo controlled by the 1 percent. Perhaps this is what is necessary to break the dehumanizing trend for disabled people in the U.S. and give rise to a dignified existence to the country’s largest oppressed group.
Alex Bradshaw is editor for the Louisville, Kentucky-based FORsooth, a monthly anti-war newspaper. He is an occasional commentator for “The Authority Smashing Hour” Internet radio show (alexbrad11@ hotmail.com).