Social Security and “Big Babies”

Posted May 23, 2011

by Frann Michael

A recent episode of National Geographic’s TV series Taboo featured a profile of Stanley Thornton, a 30-year-old “adult baby, ” in California, who wears diapers and onesies, drinks from a bottle, and sleeps in a giant crib.

Stanley Thornton

Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma was so outraged to learn that the adult baby in question is receiving social security disability benefits that he has asked the Social Security Administration to investigate the man’s case, writing that

“Given that [he] is able to determine what is appropriate attire and actions in public, drive himself to complete errands, design and custom make baby furniture to support a 350-pound adult and run an Internet support group, it is possible that he has been improperly collecting disability benefits for a period of time.”

There are a number of issues raised by this case and by the responses it has generated.
First of all, let’s just pause to reflect on the fact that there is a National Geographic TV show called Taboo.

But my main interest today is not actually the society of the spectacle or the significance of cultural narcissism induced by lack of satisfying real communities and lives.

More to the immediate point, it’s worth noting that Thornton’s kink, or fetish, or lifestyle, or taboo—call it what you will– is not itself his disability. But the distaste some feel for his kink, or for his weight, seems to color responses to his disability status.

The segment did not specify the nature of his disability, though on his website he describes himself as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from severe childhood abuse, as well as from a heart disease.

As one internet commentator observed, “Not all disabilities are visible, and just because someone is kinky in a way that you personally find gross, weird, or offensive doesn’t mean that they aren’t deserving of SSI benefits.”

But the right wing has taken him up as a symbol, with Michele Malkin describing him as a symptom of a “Nanny State run amok.”

The Atlantic magazine ran a story in its business section titled “This Adult Baby Is Our Best Hope to Fix Social Security”

There, editor Derek Thompson argues that “Social Security Disability applications have doubled as a share of the population since 1985” and suggests this is because “healthy Americans discouraged from the awful job market have sought out disability insurance and collected Social Security money even though they’re not actually disabled.”

Thompson sees this as logical insofar as he says “This program pays people [typically around $1,000 per month] not to work.”

I note that this is right around the federal poverty level, and of course many recipients get less.

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But, anyway, the uptick in disability claims aligns not with unemployment, which was fairly low in the early 1990s, but instead it aligns with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

That Act was the result of a substantial lobbying and education campaign, and in addition to including recognition of invisible disabilities—both physical, like heart disease, and psychological. like PTSD –the campaign for the ADA would have raised awareness about disabilities and the rights and entitlements of the disabled.

Moreover, As Susan Wendell has written,

“Whether a particular physical condition is disabling changes with time and place, depending on such factors as social expectations, the state of technology and its availability to people in that condition, the educational system, architecture, attitudes towards physical appearance, and the pace of life. (If, for example, the pace of life increases without changes in other factors, more people become disabled simply because fewer people can keep up the “normal” pace.)”

Of course, getting SSDI is no simple matter. The Social Security Administration states that it takes between 3 and 5 months for applicants to get a first decision on their benefits, while applicants’ medical records are reviewed by medical professionals. If a claim is denied, the appeals process can take years.

One online commenter observed,

“As a physician who has helped my patients apply for disability, I can tell you in my experience that [fraud] is as rare as Reagan’s ‘welfare Cadillacs’. The process of getting SSDI is not just onerous, its inhumane.”

Yet the financial crisis of social security is rather like the other financial crises we face these days, rather like the cookie problem. You know the one about the cookies.

A corporate CEO, a union worker and a Tea Partier . . . are at a table with 12 cookies. The CEO takes 11 and says to the Tea Partier: “Keep an eye on that union guy, he wants your cookie.”

Listeners to KBOO already know that the supposed fiscal crisis of social security is a fraud, a politically, ideologically motivated attempt to defund the social safety net for Americans. Earlier this morning, listeners to More Talk Radio will have heard a debunking of the right-wing media’s portrayal of the recently released Trustees report.

Max Richtman of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare noted that the report “confirms that Social Security and Medicare continue to fulfill their mission, providing retirement and health security to millions still suffering during the worst economic crisis of a generation. Beyond the doom-and-gloom news headlines and calls to cut these programs in order to ‘save’ them, the fiscal facts in this annual report show that Social Security has a $2.6 trillion surplus which continues to grow.”

As Nancy Altman of Social Security Works told Bill Resnick last year,

we keep hearing about the phony crisis in social security because those who are ideologically opposed to providing a social safety net have learned that most Americans do not share their belief that it’s morally preferable to allow the poor, the elderly, and the disabled to suffer and die rather than to redistribute social resources to provide a minimal level of support for all.

As Dave Lindoff pointed out in a piece that Tom Becker shared last year,

“the Senate Special Committee on Aging report on “Social Security Modernization” states that if the Social Security tax applied to all income instead of just the first $106,000, as things stand now, then Social Security would be completely funded as least through 2075. In fact, . . . there would be a 16% surplus! The report states that even if those wealthy folks who had their higher incomes taxed were able to collect higher benefits–as much as $6000 a month in current dollars–the added tax dollars raised would still ensure that the system would remain funded through 2075 and beyond.”

As Michael Moore has pointed out America is not broke.

Nor is Social Security or Medicare.

If we let ourselves be distracted by stories of welfare queens or adult babies or union members or others we think might be getting something we’re not, we miss the big picture, where the wealthiest corporations and individuals are the ones siphoning off an excessive share of the collectively created wealth of the world.

If we had fewer illusions about our individual independence and powers of control, if our culture more fully recognized and valued interdependence, then maybe millionaires wouldn’t be paying twenty percent less of their income in taxes than they did 50 years ago, and corporations wouldn’t be paying thirty-five percent less of their profits in taxes.

But if the wealthy and powerful are acting like big babies, or toddlers who haven’t learned how to share, we can’t expect them to grow out of it. They need to be disciplined by a grown-up popular movement.