Can we afford the commitments we have made over the years to seniors, people with disabilities and government retirees? This is one of the major issues being discussed in the halls of Congress.
By REINHARD MABRY
Special to The Star
Many in politics as well as a large percentage of voters believe it is time to set priorities.
Last year, the Missouri legislature contemplated eliminating a health benefit for residents who are blind.
Ignoring the long-held belief that taking away benefits for the disabled is a loser at the ballot box, the Missouri House budget opted to end the entitlement for 2,800 blind Missourians as a cost-saving measure.
But this is the canary in a coal mine.
Across the country, we are faced with similarly gut-wrenching choices cut benefits rather than add to the tax burden.
Seniors believe they earned the benefits they receive, having paid into the system for decades. Retirees similarly believe they served their country or community faithfully and earned the benefits they receive. It is hard to argue the points.
For our most vulnerable citizens, the decision to cut meager benefits seems unfair. When nearly three out of every four citizens who are blind are unemployed, the decision seems cruel.
But legislators have decided it is time to make hard choices. Blind Missourians were able to keep their health-care benefit for now.
But they recognize that benefits they have long depended upon are at risk in this economy. The debate in the Missouri legislature was a preview of the national battle we are witnessing today.
Social Security disability insurance rolls have increased by 53 percent in the past decade, and only half of one percent of beneficiaries ever works themselves off of benefits.
More leave the rolls due to death than employment, despite government initiatives focused on increasing work participation by people with disabilities. This is an unsustainable growth rate, and SSDI, according to some reports, is a target for reform. Congress will be on a collision course with the disability community much like the Missouri legislature faced off against the blindness community this year.
We at Alphapointe believe there is a solution. For more than 100 years, we have proven that people who are blind are productive, highly successful employees when given a chance. They are loyal, dependable and hardworking. Government customers recognize the value of employing this untapped workforce and have established incentives for employers who hire people with disabilities.
We thank business partners such as 3M, Sealed Air, Kensington, Sanofi-Aventis and Boulevard Brewing Co. who have partnered with us to create aspirational careers for people who are blind, or have hired those we have trained.
Once hired, the employee can end dependence upon a government handout. Employment is liberating.
We need employers to commit to harnessing the talent of the 20,000 people who are blind in our state who are unemployed. We call on businesses throughout the state to invest in this underutilized workforce.
We can make the business case for hiring people with disabilities, and turning social issues into business opportunities. By adding to the diversity of our workforce, we reduce dependence on SSDI and other supports and thus side step the problem entirely. Together, we can make a difference.
Reinhard Mabry of Overland Park is the president and CEO of Alphapointe, a provider of rehabilitation and education services for people losing vision, as well as manufacturing divisions that employ people who are blind.