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.
It certainly gave a frightening impression. But viewers got little valuable information about the actual fraud rates for SSDI. Kroft didn’t interview any policy experts, nor any spokespeople for the program nor anyone who actually receives benefits.
Had he done so, viewers might have learned the following:
According to the OECD, the United States has among the most restrictive and least generous disability benefit systems in the developed world—behind only South Korea.
Two-thirds of SSDI applicants are denied on the first application. More than 60 percent are denied even after all appeals are complete.
SSDI is funded through payroll tax contributions, and is provided to workers who have contributed enough through payroll taxes to be insured.
There is an answer to Coburn’s question of “where did all these disabled people come from?” Demographics explain nearly all of it, and this rise in SSDI applicants was predicted as far back as 1994. Growth in the US population, the baby-boom generation entering its high-disability years and the surge of women who entered the workplace in the 1970s and 1980s and became insured under SSDI all contributed to the natural rise in beneficiaries.
As baby boomers reach the retirement age, the SSDI growth has already begun to level off and will decline in coming years.
There will be a shortfall in SSDI benefits beginning in 2016, but the program can pay 79 to 80 percent of benefits through 2086.
To reach solvency, Congress would simply have to enact a modest reallocation of payroll taxes from the retirement side of Social Security to the disability side, as it has done eleven times in the past to respond to demographic changes.
In other words, SSDI is a very strict program that denies far more people than it accepts, and needs a modest congressional fix to stay at full solvency. An interesting issue, for certain—but nothing like the benefit-sucking dystopia portrayed by 60 Minutes.
Failing to mention any of the above pieces of critical context was unusual for a normally rigorous news program. The closest Kroft came to even attempting to actually quantify fraud in SSDI was to mention a report done by Coburn’s staff. This is how Kroft characterized it: “Last year, his staff randomly selected hundreds of disability files and found that 25 percent of them should never have been approved. Another 20 percent, he said, were highly questionable.”
This doesn’t comport with the well-established scrutiny of the SSDI program, nor a rigorous University of Michigan study that suggested a problematic approval rate of less than 7 percent.
Why? Because Kroft mischaracterized Coburn’s study. Indeed, it found that in 22 percent of SSDI appeals that favored beneficiaries, there may have been a “procedural error.” But according to Rebecca Vallas, co-chair of the Social Security Task Force at the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, that could mean something as small as failing to cite a particular policy in one paragraph of the entire decision. It doesn’t mean the case was wrongly decided. In fact, “[Coburn’s] report did not contain any evidence that even one case was wrongly decided,” Vallas said. Yet Kroft’s whole piece hung nearly all of its anecdotal evidence on Coburn’s study.
Sadly, the 60 Minutes piece isn’t the first recent bit of journalism from a respected outlet to bash recipients of SSDI. NPR’s This American Life and the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof both recently did similarly skewed reports.
Advocates like Vallas are naturally frustrated. “These media reports do a tremendous disservice to viewers as well as to people with disabilities,” she told The Nation. “Any misuse of these vital programs is unacceptable; however, it is unfortunate and disappointing when media reports mislead their viewers by painting entire programs with the brush of one or a few bad apples, without putting them in the context of the millions of individuals who receive benefits appropriately, and for whom they are a vital lifeline.”
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