SPOILER ALERT: This article discusses events within the first episode of Season 3.
Et tu, Orange Is the New Black?
The Netflix drama is back with a third season, and if you’re like me, it monopolized the better part of the last two weekends. The show deserves credit for sparking dialogue and increasing awareness about mass incarceration in the US, particularly among people who hadn’t previously considered criminal-justice reform to be their thing.
The show’s typically smart writing and masterful treatment of a serious and complex topic made the first episode all the more disappointing.
One of the very first scenes of the third season is a flashback to the character Pennsatucky’s childhood. We watch as her mother forces her to chug an entire two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew. Pan right to the sign showing us that they’re at the Social Security Administration office. Then we hear Mom say, with a young Pennsatucky now bouncing off the walls behind her, “So I understand, Supplemental Security Income benefits for kids like mine are $314 a month, is that right?”
The implication is clear: Mom is attempting to simulate the symptoms of ADHD in her child in order to fraudulently obtain SSI benefits.
This scene caused me to have several flashbacks of my own. First, to the mid-1990s, when a flurry of media reports accused parents of “coaching” their children to “act disabled” in order to feign eligibility for SSI benefits. The “crazy checks” media frenzy, as it came to be known, spurred Congress to narrow the program’s eligibility rules, causing more than 100,000 children with disabilities to lose critically needed benefits. The media claims were later shown to be baseless, but the damage had already been done, and Congress had already legislated by anecdote.
I also flashed back to 2010, when media allegations accused parents of seeking psychotropic medications for their children in hopes of SSI eligibility. These claims were similarly debunked after multiple investigations. But again, the media allegations rang loudly in the halls of Congress, leading to hearings and yet more proposals to cut SSI.
My head swirling, I was next transported to 2012, when New York Times columnist Nick Kristof sparked yet another kids’ SSI media hubbub by accusing parents of pulling their kids out of literacy programs in order to obtain SSI benefits. Mr. Kristof’s claims that the program incentivises parents to keep their kids from learning to read were similarly unsupported by the facts—but that didn’t stop NPR from doubling down on his claims with their own (widely discredited) “reporting” just a few months later. Legislation that would kick young people with disabilities off of SSI if they miss school is now pending in Congress.