In the holiday season, many Americans begin to think about the poor and what they can do for them.
Other Americans, notably in the Reagan administration, are gripped by another thought -- namely what the poor are doing to them. The first whiff of turkey, the first sight of holly and they begin to brood about rapacity in the lower-income groups.
This particular strain in their natures was first revealed at Thanksgiving 1982 when Edwin Meese III, then the White House counsel, floated the notion of taxing unemployment benefits to "make joblessness less attractive."
Meese has since been made attorney general.
The following year at Christmastime, his contribution to joy to the world was a lecture about people who go "voluntarily" to soup kitchens "because the food is free." Since most soup kitchens are run by voluntary organizations, Meese showed the wide range of his resentment of freeloaders. It isn't just people who are getting something for nothing from the taxpayers who stir his bile.
This Thanksgiving, to give a holiday glow to last into the New Year, Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret M. Heckler announced that a new review of Social Security disability recipients will be undertaken beginning in January.
Congress has mandated that the Social Security Administration review at least every three years the cases of all beneficiaries who are not permanently disabled. Last time, the administration went about it with a savagery that nearly scared some people to death. Under the whip of budget-balancer David A. Stockman, grim procedures were brought to bear. The recipients, once the review began, were removed from the rolls and expected to survive on the thought that justice would eventually be done.
One of the most tragic victims of the Stockman sweep was brought to the public's attention by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). His constituent, Richard Kage, died after Social Security officials decided he was not really sick. Kage was denied his $459.80 monthly benefit when a Social Security staff doctor, after a 15-minute examination, decided that while Kage, a victim of several afflictions including diabetes, was "blind for all practical purposes . . . , the presence of central vision in his right eye gives him some reprieve from being a total cripple."
Kage took a job as a caretaker at a cemetery and suffered a fatal heart attack before he could appeal his case.
In the outcry that followed this and other atrocities, Congress declared a moratorium on disability reviews. As the dust settled, it turned out that of the 491,000 recipients judged unworthy by the SSA, 291,000 won their benefits back in the courts. A total of 200,000 were dropped from the rolls.
Now HHS has drawn up guidelines that it says are humane, and the investigation will be undertaken in a less life-threatening manner. Recipients won't be cut off when the federal government knocks on their door. Suspicion remains deep, however, that investigators will be more rigid with the sickly poor than they are with, say, defense contractors who have been caught with their arms in the trough.
A House Government Operations subcommittee this week will look into the use of contract physicians to conduct "consultative exminations" of disability claimants -- their own doctors' word is not sufficient to excuse claimants from going back to work. In fiscal 1986, the SSA will pay approximately $203 million for the examinations, raising questions about the cost-effectiveness of the procedure.
Why it is that administration officials simply cannot handle the idea that some poor devil on crutches is taking advantage of them for a few bob, while defense contractors shamelessly romp through the federal treasury gathering up millions, is a matter that might be looked into. Liberals on the whole would rather be ripped off by welfare cheats than by arms merchants -- at least the poor aren't making bombs. Conservatives are exactly the opposite.
Maybe it's because defense contractors wear three-piece suits, belong to the right clubs, board their dogs at the best kennels, don't add to the unemployment figures and, above all, do not spoil the picture of the Reagan economic recovery. Beyond that, true conservatives tend to believe that people get just about what they deserve.
Only "freedom fighters," down-and-outers trying to knock off commie governments, are an exception. They are the only legitimate objects of charity in the minds of the right wing. All others are suspect, especially, for some reason, during the holiday season. It's a gift, maybe.