Perhaps the biggest enemy of the American social insurance system is the anecdote: the Walmart shopper using food stamps to pay for King Crab legs, the mother who keeps popping out kids just to ensure the benefit checks don’t stop or the infamous welfare queen rolling around town in a Cadillac. None represent anything close to reality for the vast majority of food stamp and welfare beneficiaries, but are nonetheless powerful and seemingly indestructible fables for millions of Americans.
60 Minutes added an impressive entry to the genre of bashing safety-net programs with anecdotal evidence on Sunday night with a segment on the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which provides benefits to workers who become disabled before the retirement age. The piece, entitled “Disability USA,” has advocates for the disabled outraged.
The report, by Steve Kroft, made big promises, purporting to reveal a “secret welfare system” with its own “disability industrial complex,” and an out-of-control bureaucracy “ravaged by waste and fraud.” Kroft also said SSDI might be “the first government benefits program to run out of money.” But when it came time to deliver, he didn’t have the goods.
To tell his story, Kroft interviewed Senator Tom Coburn, an austerity crusader who has held up spending bills on everything from veterans’ benefits to tornado relief for people in his own state. He has also characterized some Americans on government benefits as “the people sucking off the program.” (“So, where’d all those disabled people come from?” Coburn wondered glibly during the 60 Minutes segment.) Kroft also interviewed two administrative law judges who work with SSDI cases, two lawyers who used to work on behalf of SSDI applicants, and two low-level workers in a Social Security office in West Virginia.
Each person described a system run amok: one of the judges said that “if the American public knew what was going on in our system, half would be outraged and the other half would apply for benefits.” The former lawyers told Kroft their former firm “figured out the system and they’ve made it into a huge national firm that makes millions of dollars a year on Social Security disability.” The West Virginia office workers described seeing huge lines at local stores and traffic jams on the day the disability checks came out; also that they heard people using the phrase “getting on the check” to mean ripping off the SSDI system.
Kroft also attempted to interview a Kentucky lawyer, Eric Conn, who Coburn has accused of paying off doctors to give disability diagnoses so patients could win claims through his firm. Conn played the role of villain in the piece by refusing to be interviewed, and was aided by a rather unfortunate last name, given the context.