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How ‘This American Life’ Got Disability Wrong

3:44 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Also see Tom Thumb’s post

NPR, This American Life

dramatic investigation aired this week by This American Life raised concerns about federal disability insurance with its portrayal of the system as dysfunctional, financially unsustainable and ballooning out of control.

But experts say the program omitted key evidence that the doubling of workers on disability insurance since 1995 has been driven by genuine need.

In the show, featured on National Public Radio, This American Life reporter Chana Joffe-Walt explores a poor Alabama town where 1 in 4 people live on disability insurance. The interviews with working-class beneficiaries depict them as victims of a culture of dependency, convinced that there’s no real job they could do, and prey to vulture-like lawyers. One attorney, who helps people appeal disability insurance rejections, boasts, “I’ve created some of the problems for the government because so many people appeal.” Joffe-Walt raises hand-wringing questions, “Who is making the case for the other side? Who is defending the government’s decision to deny disability?”
In fact, the government has staunch defenders of its right to deny disability benefits: pro-market conservative commentators. They argue that while other federal assistance programs have severely tightened since the neoliberal “welfare reform” of the 1990s, disability (which was expanded after its 1956 enactment to include more age groups) has become a de facto welfare system plagued with “misaligned incentives” that could lead to insolvency. Some conservatives use this narrative to make the case for privatizing disability insurance, in tandem with the push to privatize Social Security.
But according to the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the driver of growth in disability beneficiaries isn’t “misaligned incentives” or, as the show suggests, people taking advantage of an over-generous system. It’s simply more people.

Even With Daisey’s Lies Peeled Away, Apple’s Rotten Core Exposed

7:55 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Activists pass out literature detailing Apple's connection to Foxconn. (MakeITFair)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

Apple’s brand glared in the media spotlight this past week, after the public learned that performance artist Mike Daisey’s theatrical rendering of the struggles of Apple factory workers contained false claims—painfully exposed on an episode of the radio program This American Life. But if one fundamental truth has emerged from the scandal surrounding Daisey’s dramatic fudging, it’s that the lived reality of many Chinese workers is undoubtedly bleak—no embellishment needed.

Daisey’s personal account is gratuitously peppered with fabrications, but the story of systematic exploitation is essentially true. For years various watchdog groups have tried to hold Apple accountable for harsh working conditions in China, which have been linked to workplace-related suicides and health hazards. Since a number of young workers killed themselves in 2010, the consumer advocacy campaign Make IT Fair, together with the Hong Kong-based Students Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), have documented systematic abuses: exhausting hours, an oppressive, militaristic workplace culture and, despite conciliatory pay hikes, extremely low wages in comparison to the tremendous corporate profits and brutal working conditions.

It should be noted, however, that Daisey’s “dramatic license” was debunked largely through the real findings of intrepid investigations by advocates and professional reporters, which some commentators have highlighted amid the media fallout. As part of its “Retraction” episode, in fact, TAL interviewed New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg about the real story behind Daisey’s fictions.

On the reported widespread violations of a 60-hour weekly cap on working hours, Duhigg tells host Ira Glass, Apple claims workers volunteer for this excess work:

Duhigg: They say, “Look, one of the reasons why there is so much overtime that’s inappropriate and, in some places, is illegal, is because the workers themselves are demanding that overtime.”

Now, workers don’t always say that. What workers often say is that they feel coerced into doing overtime, that if they didn’t do overtime when it’s asked of them, that they wouldn’t get any overtime at all, and that financially they would suffer as a result.

This is the kind of more nuanced, day-to-day exploitation that Foxconn workers face–not so sensational, but nonetheless driven by global economic forces. Read the rest of this entry →