Edward Glaeser says “the number that sums up the year’s doldrums is the 1.27 million increase in the number of disabled Americans without jobs from November 2011 to November 2012. This statistic reflects not only the sluggish recovery but also a drifting nation, badly in need of tough medicine.”

There are, Glaeser continues, almost 90 million Americans who are out of the labor force. That would be over 11 million more than in 2006. Many of these people are now receiving disability payments and not likely to resume working. A troubling development in a culture that, while it was busy shedding so many of the old virtues, still clung to a belief in hard work. It is an American boast to say you "can outwork anyone." John Henry died with a hammer in his hand, trying to outwork the machine. But increasingly, the incentives favor non-work for the low skilled. And the government gets hit two ways. It pays benefits as it is denied revenues.

The cultural side effects of non-work may be even worse. Idle hands being, indeed, the Devil's playthings. Idleness is demoralizing and as Glaeser writes, workers may face “a choice between suffering at work and going on disability. In boom times, the work option may seem more attractive, but as labor options contract, a steady check from the federal government can seem the better choice. The recession surely explains much of the 24 percent increase in the number of people receiving Social Security disability insurance since 2007.”

The hope, then, is that the economy will improve and many of those who are now at home, receiving disability payments, will return to the work force and "play through the pain."

But there are no guarantees.

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