FREAK-TV: Is the Law of Unintended Consequences the Strongest Law Around?

Video

The Americans with Disabilities Act was considered landmark legislation. Here’s a summary of the law from the Department of Justice Web site:

The Americans with Disabilities Act gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, State and local government services, and telecommunications.

How much did the A.D.A. actually improve the lot of America’s disabled workers? That’s the question posed in our most recent video quiz. You may want to pause the video before the answer is revealed and take a look at this paper by Daron Acemoglu and Joshua Angrist.

Addendum:

For those who may be hearing impaired or otherwise unable to hear the audio, below is a transcript:

Hi, I’m Stephen Dubner. In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, or A.D.A., which was meant to strengthen the rights of workers with physical or mental handicaps.

How did this legislation affect such workers? Here are four guesses:

(a) Their employment levels rose 30 percent.
(b) Their employment rose 15 percent.
(c) Their employment levels were unchanged. Or
(d) Disabled workers were actually hired less often than before.

The correct answer is (d).

After the A.D.A. went into effect, there was actually a sharp drop in employment among disabled workers, apparently because employers, now concerned that they wouldn’t be able to discipline or fire incompetent workers who happened to be disabled, simply chose to not hire disabled workers in the first place.

The A.D.A. was a powerful law that became a classic example of an even more powerful one — the law of unintended consequences.


Silvanus

Wow, that's a half glass empty look at the federal government protecting citizens of the republic from corporate abuse... because there might have been a need for this law? Perhaps? Maybe there was just a little bit of moral injustice going on in corporate America that merited legislation?

Here's a better example of the law of unintended consequences- prohibition = rise in organized crime.

ZOMG= those prohibitionists were stupid! How could they do that?
Answer: It is doubtful anyone would link the influx of immigrant gangs, organized crime and bootlegging to a morality law. See Prohibition of Slavery for another morality law (which ironically, is the one used by corporations to establish corporate personhood thanks to Senator Roscoe Conklin's perjured testimony to the 1876 case regarding the rail road and Santa Clara).

EB

Wow, that's a half glass empty look at the federal government protecting citizens of the republic from corporate abuse…

Well, if you're talking about the federal government protecting citizens from abuse, you must first understand... it does not.

The politicians take their payroll from the corporations, award the contracts and let the public pay and pay. There is no protection from the govt in that arena. There never has been.

oddTodd

The most interesting unintended consequence of ADA is bike riding on the sidewalk. Before cities cut ramps into their sidewalks at every intersection, bikers used to ride on the street where they belong.

Austin

In response to the first poster saying that there was "a need for the law, etc...

I think part of the point is that the law was intended to right that injustice and instead resulted in companies trying not to hire disabled people..

discordian

One of the first things I had to do out of college with a shiny new engineering degree was work on ADA access issues for the first factory I worked in.
...And thie first thing I learned was how to write a job description to exclude all but the least disabled people... because you only need to make REASONABLE accomodations.
Yup - HR taught me how to discriminate.

Not only was there a drop in hiring of disabled people but a lot of small-medium companies spent a lot of money installing ramps, handicap parking spaces, elevators, non-slip surfaces, and wheelchair sized toilet stalls that were never used for their intended purposes.

rob koch

This is ironic, we're talking about the ADA here. Problem -- I'm deaf and I have no idea what Dubner's saying to much regret. Anyone got a transcript here?

mike

Various special art exhibits at the Smithsonian have the description of the painting plaque in braille too. I have yet to see a blind person actually going to an art exhibit to "see" paintings.

Rob Thomas

Penn & Teller, on their Bulls**t show just aired a fantastic episode on this very topic. Fascinating viewing.

htb

Here's the transcript:

Hi, I'm Stephen Dubner. In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, which was meant to strengthen the rights of workers with physical or mental handicaps.

How did this legislation affect such workers? Here are four guesses:

(a) Their employment levels rose 30%.
(b) Their employment rose 15%.
(c) Their employment levels were unchanged. Or
(d) Disabled workers were actually hired less often than before.

The correct answer is D.

After the ADA went into effect, there was actually a sharp drop in employment among disabled workers, apparently because employers, now concerned that they wouldn't be able to discipline or fire incompetent workers who happened to be disabled, simply chose to not hire disabled workers in the first place.

The ADA was a powerful law that became a classic example of an even more powerful one: the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Read more...

Larry

ADA was passed in 1990. I'm old enough to remember that ramps were frequently cut into sidewalks long before then.

Kevin

Unanswered questions:

The underlying study cite an increase in both absolute and relative unemployment among the disabled. What I couldn't see was whether there had been an increase in the population of the disabled - that is, is a larger portion of the employable population identified as disabled?

I ask this for several reasons:
> The trend of an aging population is ongoing. As people age, they're more likely to become disabled. How does this affeect the stats?
> Did the ADA lead to an increase in the number of people willing to identify themselves as disabled?
> The article notes most ADA claims are for wrongful termination. Are people identifying themselves as disabled in efforts to keep their jobs?

It brought to mind a series of articles I read a few years back on Paterson NJ. In the 2000 census, Paterson was identified as the most disabled city in America - it had the largest proportion of its population identifying themselves as disabled. The newspaper (northjersey.com Herald News) came to the conclusion that the population had grown because of the city's declining manufacturing/employment base, and disability benefits are better and longer than welfare or unemployment. (Disability gets you qualified for Medicare, for one thing.) Groups and lawyers in the community had learned how to work the system.

Another issue is whether the ADA has had a negative impact on capital investment. Small businesses are exempt from the ADA, but not from building codes. I know of half a dozen businesses near me that could benefit from renovations - but won't undertake them because they'd lose their grandfather exemptions and have to use up valuable space to make accomodations. The town of Ridgewood NJ has this beautiful old library building that they can't use for anything because they'd have to gut it to bring itup to code.

Read more...

ron

okay that apple chopping noise is WAAAAAAAAAAAY louder than the rest of the audio. plz 2 normalize.

WB

Another consequence of ADA: A local volunteer trails group has started doing guerrilla trail-building and maintenance, with a wink and a nod from the local city government. Everybody wants nice walking trails, but if the city builds them they must be to ADA standards. One example was a little pedestrian bridge over a very small creek (dry most of the year). The city would have had to spend $60,000 to build an ADA standards bridge. The local group did it with $600 in materials and volunteer labor. It's not wheelchair accessible, but neither is the natural footpath on either side of it. And it works great for the vast majority of people who want to use the natural trail rather than streets and sidewalks.

The same trails group ALSO advocates for ADA-type street and sidewalk improvements for those who really need them. But for those who enjoy a natural footpath, there is no need to spend huge money on improvements when just some gravel and lumber are needed.

Read more...

Chouser

Thank you for the transcript! I am not deaf or blind, but I appreciate the transcript because I can read it faster, skim it more easily, and find it via search engines more successfully.

rob koch

Many thanks for the transcript by the way.

The only barrier (that I can see) to deaf hires are interpreting costs during group meetings, interviews, etc. There is however positive unintended consequences to hiring the deaf and disabled. Since we're not in the norm of society so to speak, as thus, people do not talk to us at the watercooler, therefore, we work harder, and longer and as a result pretty much out of office politics. [Sorry in speaking like a bookish economist there.]

Within the deaf community, we are seeing more and more deaf-run small business cropping up, and as a result, more hires from within the deaf community. That may have also impacted statistics.

Panem et Circanses

#11 Kevin, fine questions. Perhaps also ADA empowered more people to identify themselves, externally and even internally, expecting it could not hurt.

Dr. Troy Camplin

The law of unintended consequences will always rule so long as we are dealing with complex systems. (Another name for unintended consequences is "butterfly effects".) The economy, culture, society, people, organisms are all complex systems. One cannot treat them like they are watches or a ball rolling down a plane -- such simple systems in no way model what happens in complex systems. One cannot change aspects of such systems with impunity and not expect there to be unexpected consequences.

Davey

#1. I don't understand why folks like yourself come to an an economics forum and try to inject emotionalism into an interpretation of data.

Specifically: "Wow, that's a half glass empty look at the federal government protecting citizens of the republic from corporate abuse… "

That's not a half glass empty look. It's a look at a glass with water in it and there doesn't seem to be as much water in it as one might expect. Why?

Wish I could remember where I read it, but one of the biggest, and least publicized instances of the law of unintended consequences kicking in are the federal CAFE standards for the automotive industry. The CAFE standards kicked in back in the '60's or '70's and they mandate that an automaker's fleet achieve a certain MPG. Supposed to cut pollution and conserve fuel. How'd that work out?

One of the unintended consequences of the CAFE standards is, according to the piece I read, urban sprawl. CAFE compliance made cars more fuel efficient, thus lowering the cost to travel in to the city center, and its jobs, by car from the 'burbs. So people moved to the 'burbs and now have abandoned downtowns all over the country. Plenty of nice suburbs, though.

By the way, I think I read that the EPA is getting ready to increase the CAFE standards for the first time in many years. The 'burbs will get 'burbier.

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Alan Gunn

I don't have data, but I'd be willing to bet that the results for old people after the Age Discrimination in Employment Act passed are similar. If you hire an old person for an important job, it now comes with tenure, especially if you've ever said something like "Charlie may be slowing down a bit" (and who hasn't?)

Davey

Another example of the law of unintended consequences could be seen last year when France had a series of riots by their youth when a law was passed that made it possible to fire anyone under the age of 26 from their job. France has very high unemployment rates because employers are reluctant to hire anyone at all for fear of hiring a bad worker that they can't get rid of. This is particularly a problem for younger workers. So, the thinking went, make the under 26's "fireable" and maybe they can find work. Unfortunately, the youngsters started riots because they would not have the same protections afforded to older workers, and got the law repealed I believe, before it ever really went into effect. Wasn't that smart of them?

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_France#Unemployment