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New Freedom Initiative: Survival of the Fittest “Equality”


 

Unveiling
his New Freedom Initiative (NFI), President George W. Bush pronounced “my
Administration is committed to tearing down the barriers to equality that face
many of the 54 million Americans with disabilities.”

The
feel-good “equality” and “freedom” speech W. delivered was well
received, even by liberals like Ted Kennedy. Bobby Silverstein, a key staffer on
the congressional Disability subcommittee spearheaded by Senator Tom Harkin,
reportedly remarked “you could take NFI, switch around the order, sign
Harkin’s name and not know the difference.”

Disability
has been a bipartisan issue in Washington politics largely because it is
nonthreatening to either party. Both parties have found ways to use it to fit
their agenda. The GOP can put the emphasis on empowerment and ending dependency
on government entitlements while the Democrats can focus on civil rights and
equal opportunity — both parties get political mileage for it. That doesn’t
mean that the disability movement has made substantial gains, however,
especially when it comes to income equality.

Harris
Poll surveys commissioned by the National Organization on Disability over the
past decade since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, for
instance, have found persistent gaps in employment, education, voting and
political participation, and in involvement in community, social and religious
life, between disabled persons and other Americans. Despite a record expansion
of the economy and an overall low official unemployment rate, only a third of
working age disabled individuals are currently employed, compared to more than
80% of the nondisabled. Disabled persons also are twice as likely not to finish
high school (22 versus 9%). A far higher percentage live in households that are
below the poverty level (29 versus 10%), and a similarly disproportionate number
report not having adequate access to health care (28 versus 12%) or
transportation (30 versus 10%). (2000 N.O.D./Harris Survey of Americans with
Disabilities)

Disabled
persons have suffered from watered-down legislation and middle-of-the-road
approaches which satisfy both political parties, don’t accomplish much in the
way of equality of results and keep us as vulnerable as ever to the capitalist
economy. Mostly disabled peoples’ advancement has suffered from both the New
Democrats and GOP’s unwillingness to address the relationship between
“equality” and redistribution.

W.
states in the NFI, for instance, that new technologies like text telephones for
those with hearing impairments; computer monitors with braille displays for
those with visual impairments; infrared pointers for people who cannot use their
hands, allowing them to operate computers by pointing at functions on the
monitor or the keyboard; lighter wheelchairs; lighter artificial limbs, are
essential to disabled people’s participation.

“These
modern wonders make the world more accessible, yet they are often inaccessible
to people who need but cannot afford them,” says W.

But
what does W. propose to remedy this situation? He is asking Congress to create a
new fund – a federal investment – that would go directly to rehabilitation
centers and businesses to develop and produce such equipment. Here is the
clincher: these organizations will get money to pay staff and develop products
while disabled people who absolutley need them will have to purchase the
equipment by taking out low-interest loans. The developers get the government
money outright, while the disabled person must pay for the product they produce
using taxpayer dollars.

If
we examine W.’s remedy from the standpoint of equality, it becomes clear that
equality is entirely avoided here. For instance, the National Council on
Disability has noted “for Americans without disabilities, technology makes
things easier. For Americans with disabilities, technology makes things
possible.”

In
other words, it is necessary from the get-go for a disabled person to have this
technology in order to function. Assistive technology is an expense on top of
and beyond what a nondisabled person must make to accomplish similar tasks. To
fulfill any notion of “equality” would require taking into account this
difference. As the economist Amarta Sen has explained, a disabled person will
not extract the same benefit from a given bundle of resources as someone who
does not have a functional disadvantage. For equality to exist in this
particular situation, the disabled person *must* have the technology to
experience any freedom, it is not optional, yet W.’s New Freedom Initiative
would make their freedom contingent upon being able to take out a loan and pay
for it themselves.

Now
how likely is it that disabled persons who have been surviving on the average
Social Security benefits (for SSI it is $372 per month, for SSDI, $786) will be
in the position to risk taking out a loan with no guarantee of a job? Further,
how can a disabled person without the assistive technology be job-ready? 
The devices take a learning curve to master them before they can be exploited by
employers. Moreover, disabled persons need access to this equipment regardless
of whether they will ever become a worker.

That
cuts to the quick of the neo-liberal and Third Way politics which have placed
all the emphasis on ending dependency and increasing productivity without any
attention to equality of income which is directly tied into the freedom to live
one type of life or another. Both replace redistributive (egalitarian) goals
with a market approach; both adopt the supply-side theory that the economy is
burdened by rigid labor markets, powerful trade unions, and overly-generous
welfare provisions. In an era of flexible accumulation as demanded by the
corporations government has shifted its top priority to justifying expenditures
only if they address human capital development (early education, job training,
vocational pursuit) which feeds into the so-called new economy, i.e., if it
suits business needs. The Third Way melding of a left and right mantra is
“rights and responsibility” capped off with the agreement so stated by
Clinton, that the “era of big government is over.” It follows that there is
a keen government interest in programs that target the long-term unemployed and
disadvantaged for employment.

Now
we hear W. tell disabled persons in his NFI speech that "too many Americans
with disabilities remain trapped in bureaucracies of dependence." Where
have we heard that before? In 1996, right before the passage of welfare
“reform,” the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation
Act (PRWORA). In order to reduce the “dependency” of mothers on government
benefits and to feed more low wage workers into the labor-shortaged economy,
Clinton (in typical triangulation strategy of keeping in step with the GOP),
ended welfare as we know it by eliminating the poor women’s entitlement to a
social safety net from the Social Security Act.

Women,
however, did not find an expanded benefits or services program that would lift
them out of poverty in the PRWORA, but faced a termination of benefits without
any guarantee of a job, much less a living wage job with health care and
benefits. A Wisconsin study of the Tommy Thompson (now Secretary of Health &
Human Services) welfare reform transition period conducted by John Pawasarat of
the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, found 75% of those hired lost their
jobs within nine months. Only 28% sustained projected annual earnings of $10,000
for two consecutive quarters and such work was often part-time, low-paying and
quick to end. When the Children’s Defense Fund and the National Coalition for
the Homeless reevaluated the status of former welfare recipients in 1998, they
found that only about 50% to 60% of those who leave welfare were working and
those who work typically earn less than $250 per week – too little to lift a
family out of poverty.

If
readers believe that disabled persons are somehow immune from similar tactics
and treatment consider that Jonathan Young, celebrated disability liaison for
the Clinton administration, regularly disparaged the “cycle of dependency”
which he applied to both welfare and disability programs like the Return to Work
program. Clinton’s counterpart in Great Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair has
gone further in England. “New policies to offer unemployed people jobs and
training are a social democratic priority — but we also expect everyone to take
up the opportunity offered,” says Blair.

Blair’s
remarks were soon followed with a notice from British officials telling disabled
persons to seek work or lose benefits. The Independent reported “Sick and
disabled people who refuse to look for work will face the withdrawal of their
state benefits under a tough new government drive to slash "welfare
dependency."

When
W. intones the negatives of bureaucracies, he will not be aiming to fix them as
might serve disabled persons’ long standing inequality nor will he be focused
on acheiving an equality of results. His allegiance is to the powerful elite who
put him in office and the trend is clearly towards further cutting, if not
ending, entitlements.

W.’s
proposal to revamp Social Security by creating individual investment accounts,
for instance, would be a backdoor way to do just that. The new study, by the
General Accounting Office concludes that "even under the best of
circumstances, W.’s Social Security reform proposals would reduce benefits for
disabled persons. For a worker with average earnings who first receives
disability benefits at the age of 45, the reduction in lifetime benefits would
be in the range of 4% to 18%. (The average benefit for disabled workers is now
$786 a month).

The
NFI does not mention alleviating the poverty of those trying to struggle on SSDI
or SSI below-poverty checks. As one activist in Southern California put it
“SSI pays people just enough to scrape by on, unless of course you are a crip,
in which case everything you need to live is so expensive you can’t live on
it.”

NFI
does not address daily problems disabled persons face dealing with Medicaid
(which is cutting back what it will pay for all the time) nor access to an
attendant (a grossly underpaid job that no one wants) nor Medicare (which has
never been designed to provide services of the type disabled persons need). By
omitting such realities, NFI is more useless talk about "freedom" in a
country where people’s material needs do not get met.

Significantly
NFI ignores the power relations of employment. The duty to become employed rests
entirely on the back of the disabled individual whose labor power is not often
perceived as equal by employers under the simplistic banner of “equal
employment opportunity.” Under NFI, private employers have no obligation to
hire disabled workers, rather it’s a purely voluntary situation. Without
affirmative action or requirements on employers to hire disabled workers – a
minor effort at interventionism that might produce greater equality of results -
will the barriers disabled people face be "torn down"?

Further,
W. has said the country is in a recession. If he is correct, that not only means
fewer jobs but traditionally disabled persons have been the first to loose their
jobs when the economy turns sour. How does “personal responsibility” work
into that scenario? Unemployment is not an aberration but a permanent condition
of capitalist economies. How do “personal responsibility” and “rights”
fit into that systemic reality?  There is no right to a job. Without a
government effort towards job creation, will the barriers disabled people face
be "torn down" the next four years?

W.
version of “freedom” and “equality” in the capitalist context is not
redeemable. The fact that some bourgeois disabled persons think it is a step
forward is a shame. But then, the bourgeois of all races, genders, ages and
disabililities have usually gone along with the survival-of-the-fittest type
“equality” and “freedom” the NFI represents.

Once
the neo-liberals and Third Way politicos have been convinced they have done all
they can do to help the disadvantaged seize their “opportunities” and become
“independent and productive” as W. puts it the mood is likely to shift to
blaming those disabled persons left on entitlement programs for their individual
failure to make the grade — all the more reason to shave benefits to induce
more incentives to the recalcitrant to get a job (regardless of the fact that
there will not ever be enough jobs because unemployment is a built-in component
of capitalism). Or, as with the welfare population, government may force
disabled persons into workfare programs where they must show up at designated
work spots in order to continue to receive their benefit checks.

Ending
disabled peoples oppression — which is a direct result of the relations of
production in a capitalist economy — requires addressing egalitarian principles
of redistributive justice first. It takes economic equality to produce social
equality.  Economic equality is something which data clearly shows has not
materialized in America, not just for disabled persons but for the majority of
Americans.

Marta
Russell is author of Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social
Contract. http://disweb.org/

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