Disabled or desperate? Rural Americans turn to disability as jobs dry up

Desmond Spencer, 39, howls with one of his mother’s dogs in Beaverton, Alabama. (Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount)
Desmond Spencer, 39, howls with one of his mother’s dogs in Beaverton, Alabama. (Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount)

BEAVERTON, Ala. — The lobby at the pain-management clinic become crowded with patients, so relatives went outside to their trucks to wait, and here, too, sat Desmond Spencer, smoking a 9 a.m. cigarette and watching the door.

He tried stretching out his right leg, knowing these waits can take hours, and winced. He couldn’t sit easily for long, not anymore, and so he took a sip of soda and again thought about what he should do.

He hadn’t had a full-time job in a year. He was skipping meals to save money. He wore jeans torn open in the front and back. His body didn’t work like it once had. He limped in the days, and in the nights, his hands would swell and go numb, a reminder of years spent hammering nails. His right shoulder felt like it was starting to go, too.

There are nearly 13 million working-age Americans — ages 18 to 64 — receiving disability payments. This number includes every working-age person who receives benefits through the Supplemental Security Income, Social Security Disability Insurance programs or both. Of that, more than 100,000 are in Iowa, according to Social Security Administration figures.

But did all of this pain mean he was disabled? Or was he just desperate?

He wouldn’t turn 40 for a few more months.

An hour passed and his cellphone rang. He picked it up, said hello and hung up — another debt collector. He rubbed his right knee. Maybe it would get better. Maybe he would still find a job.

His mother had written a number the night before and told him to call it, and he had told her he’d think about it. She wanted him to apply for disability, like she had, like his girlfriend had, and like his stepfather, whom he now saw shuffling out of the pain clinic, hunched over his walker, reaching for a hand-rolled cigarette. Spencer got out of the truck. He lit his own.

“Remember we were talking about it last night?” he asked Gene Ruby. “Remember we were talking about signing up?”

“Yeah,” said Ruby, 64.

“Remember Mama said there was a number you got to call?”

“She’s got the number,” Ruby said. “The Social Security number.”

Spencer kept asking questions. What would Social Security want to know? How often are people denied? But he didn’t mention the one that had been bothering him the most lately: Was he a failure?


“There’s a stigma about it,” Spencer said, thinking aloud. “Disabled. Disability. Drawing a check. But if you’re putting food on the table, does it matter?”

He put his stepfather’s walker in the truck bed, got behind the wheel, started another cigarette and, pulling out of the pain clinic’s parking lot, headed for home.


The decision that burdened Desmond Spencer was one that millions of Americans have faced over the past two decades as the number of people on disability has surged. Between 1996 and 2015, the number of working-age adults receiving disability climbed from 7.7 million to 13 million. The federal government this year will spend an estimated $192 billion on disability payments, more than the combined total for food stamps, welfare, housing subsidies and unemployment assistance.

The rise in disability has emerged as another indicator of a widening political, cultural and economic chasm between urban and rural America. Across large swathes of the country, disability has become a force that has reshaped scores of mostly white, almost exclusively rural communities, whereas many as one-third of working-age adults live on monthly disability checks, according to a Washington Post analysis of Social Security Administration statistics.

Rural America experienced the most rapid increase in disability rates over the past decade, the analysis found, amid broad growth in disability that was partly driven by demographic changes that are now slowing as disabled baby boomers age into retirement.

The increases have been worse in working-class areas, worse still in communities where residents are older and worst of all in places with shrinking populations and few immigrants.

All but three of the 136 counties with the highest rates — where more than one in six working-age adults receive disability — were rural, the analysis found, although the vast majority of people on disability live in cities and suburbs.

The counties — spread out from northern Michigan, through the boot heel of Missouri and Appalachia, and into the Deep South — are largely racially homogeneous. Eighteen of the counties were majority black, but the remaining counties were, on average, 87 percent white. In the 2016 presidential election, the majority-white counties voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, whose rhetoric of a rotting nation with vast joblessness often reflects lived experiences in these communities.


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Most people aren’t employed when they apply for disability — one reason applicant rates skyrocketed during the recession. Full-time employment would disqualify most applicants. And once on it, few ever get off, their ranks uncounted in the national unemployment rate.

The decision to apply, in many cases, is a decision to effectively abandon working altogether. For the severely disabled, this choice is, in essence, made for them. But for others, it’s murkier. Aches accumulate. Years pile up. Job prospects diminish.

“What drives people to (apply for) disability is, in many cases, the repeated loss of work and inability to find new employment,” said David Autor, an economist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied rising disability rates. “Many people who are applying would say, ‘Look, I would like to work, but no one would employ me.’”


In that position now, Spencer, a slight man with luminous blue eyes, drove deeper into western Alabama. He steered through Walker County, where nearly one in five working-age adults are on disability, and into Lamar County, where the disability rate has more than doubled over the past 20 years, arriving in the town of Beaverton, population 273, where even the 55-year-old mayor is drawing a disability check.

He pulled up to a small house alongside a quiet country road, got out and looked around. There was only forest and hills and sun. “Man, I love it out here,” he said.

He has grown so enamored of rural life that he’s sometimes surprised when he remembers he spent most of his life elsewhere. He grew up near Peoria, Ill., dropped out of school at 14, got a GED, served two stints in prison for burglary and started roofing jobs.

His work as a roofer had been a constant thread through his life, from one state to the next. And so it had been again in 2005 when he followed family members to Lamar County, which is 86 percent white and 11 percent black, and was then navigating a long decline in population and manufacturing jobs — one plant moved to Mexico, another to the Dominican Republic.

He nonetheless found a roofing job quickly, settling into a life that, for a time, felt as safe as it was comfortable. But then came the recession, and the uneven recovery, and jobs started drying up.


He figured he’d find more work right away. But weeks became months, and he started doing what he calls “odds and ends” — work as a welder, a ranch hand, even a full-time garbage collector — but nothing restored the stability that had gone missing.

Increasingly there were days when Spencer knew he was faking a belief, once so strong, that everything would work out. Today his knee was hurting once more, as it had on and off ever since he fell from a roof during a construction job two years ago. He’d never had it checked out because he no insurance, and he didn’t mention it now because everyone at home seemed worse off.

His mother, Karen Ruby, 60, has cirrhosis of the liver. His stepfather uses a walker and wheelchair. His girlfriend, Tasha Harris, 34, is an ashen woman whose back was often thrown out.

Spencer likes feeling like the strong one when it seems as if almost everyone he knows is either applying for or already on disability.

But something had to change. Everyone in his life has been telling him what that something is.

You’re hurting more, his mother said. And not getting any younger.

There aren’t jobs for you here, a friend said. Think that’ll change?

We all need help now and again, his girlfriend said. Don’t be ashamed of being on disability.

You’re a grown man, his stepfather said. Bring in some money.

That was what Spencer was thinking about — money, and not having any — when one day Harris found him sitting alone on the back porch, going through another cigarette. “Checks are in,” she said of his parents’ monthly disability payments, which are cumulatively worth $3,616 and support everyone in a house that, at that moment, was low on just about everything.

Harris disappeared back into the house, and Spencer went back to his cigarettes and thoughts.

It didn’t seem right to him, living off his parents’ disability checks and borrowing money from them. But he felt trapped. He couldn’t leave Lamar County with his mother so sick. And the only money he had coming in was the monthly $425 an elderly friend paid him to tend his horses and keep him company on lonely afternoons, and it was never enough to cover everything. This month it was socks. Harris needed socks. And what kind of man can’t afford socks?


Spencer was looking at a piece of paper on the coffee table. It was the number to the Social Security office his mother had given him. He and Harris sat on the couch and she handed him a telephone.

“You got to call,” she said.

“I’m nervous,” he said.


“Don’t be nervous,” she said. “They’re not going to reach through the phone and get you.”

He didn’t say anything for a moment, just held the phone.

“What do I do and say?” he asked.

“Call that number and do whatever they tell you to do.”

He took in a breath and exhaled slowly.

“I guess I’ll call,” he said, punching in the number, and then came a voice on the other end, with that question again, the one he rarely had the courage to ask himself:

“Are you disabled?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“How long have you been disabled?”

“Two years.”

“How are you supporting yourself?”

“Living off my mom.”

“Is this a permanent disability?”

“Uhh,” he began. “I don’t think ... “

He looked at the floor and leaned forward.

“Yeah,” he said quietly. “Yeah, I don’t think it’s getting no better.”

He scheduled an appointment for an interview at the local Social Security office the following month. He hung up, stood and, appearing dazed, told Harris, “I didn’t like it at all.”

She gave him a sympathetic look and left him alone.

He was there on the couch again four days later on a Monday morning.

The house was dark. Spencer was in his pajamas, watching television. Harris was soon beside him, also in pajamas.

She used Ruby’s laptop every Monday morning to look at job listings.

She pulled up her email and clicked on one that listed service positions within 25 miles.

“Okay,” she said. “Here we go.” She saw three postings: “Customer Service/Telecommute,” “Telecommute Consultant” and “Product Tester.”

She didn’t investigate any of them, instead going back to her inbox. She found another email with more listings.

“Erber?” she asked. “We don’t even have an Erber place around here.”

“Uber,” Spencer said.

“Uber, Erber, whatever,” she said, closing the computer.


An hour passed, then another, and Spencer stayed on the couch. He would not apply for a welding job possibility he had heard about. He wanted to focus on securing disability.

He got dressed in torn jeans and, with nothing better to do, went outside. He limped to the truck and fiddled with jumper cables. He set a fire inside an iron bin and burned some trash. He inspected a sheet of aluminum he had found, wondering how much he could sell it for. He walked into the woods and walked out. He looked at the road. A car hadn’t passed in a long while. It was 1 in the afternoon. The day already felt over.

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