Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes introduces the episode “Disability, USA.” (CBS).

George Zornick at The Nation yesterday wrote a strong critique of Sunday night’s 60 Minutes hatchet job on the alleged massive fraud in our Social Security disability system and claims that the system is about to run out of money. Senator Tom Coburn, with a radical pro-austerity bias, was the star—citing his own “investigation” and his “common sense” about the “scalawags”—so one’s antennae must be raised. Amazingly, the 60 Minutes report comes fast on the heels of a similar, and much-derided, NPR report.

Here’s an excerpt from Zornick, who mocks the evidence-by-anecdote focus:

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.” He also said SSDI might be “the first government benefits program to run out of money.” But when it came time to deliver, Kroft didn’t have the goods….

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.

Love the hard reporting about people going shopping after receiving their checks every month. Imagine that! And experts (envious or resentful neighbors) testify to the fact that few of the recipients are actually disabled—I guess because they can still drive their cars to a strip mall and stand in line with others.

Meanwhile, the report barely mentioned perhaps the most salient fact: the steep increase in the number of people in the program is mainly attributable to the aging of the enormous baby-boomer population and the vast number of women who have joined the work force in recent decades—not to mention the continuing high number of long-term unemployed.

Economist Dean Baker slams the program here: “Disability is a large program. That means there will be some fraud. This is not news, except perhaps at CBS. Perhaps the most remarkable part of this story is that the 60 Minutes crew seem to think they are being tough for going after people on disability.”

And more criticism of the program from national disability groups has emerged.

Rebecca Vallas, co-chair of the Social Security Task Force at the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities—a coalition of approximately 100 national disability organizations—told Media Matters[…]:

The recent 60 Minutes broadcast is just the latest in an array of sensational and misleading media reports that have perpetuated myths and stereotypes about the Social Security disability programs and the people they help. These media reports do a tremendous disservice to viewers as well as to people with disabilities. 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—as well as the many disability advocates around the country who work hard to protect the rights of individuals with significant disabilities and serious illnesses who have been wrongly denied Social Security disability benefits.

Just this past April, more than 100 organizations signed a letter criticizing the NPR American Life report as “unfit” for public radio and riddled with errors. The producers claimed to stand by their report but also “clarified” several claims they had made.


Knowing 60 Minutes was “probing” this issue, reps from twenty-three organizations had written a letter of concern to CBS before the segment was even aired. Part of it:

An array of recent media coverage of the Social Security disability programs…has painted a misleading and sharply inaccurate picture of these important programs, which serve as a vital lifeline for millions of Americans with significant disabilities and illnesses. In so doing, [media have] done a tremendous disservice to readers, listeners and viewers, as well as to people with disabilities….

Media coverage has real consequences. Policy by anecdote has in the past led to significant and needless harm to Social Security disability beneficiaries. The wellbeing and economic security of millions of people with disabilities and their families—for whom Social Security disability benefits are nothing short of a lifeline—hang in the balance.

Here’s the 60 Minutes site with the complete segment and extras.

More from Dean Baker:

There were any number of experts who could have been interviewed on this topic to counterbalance the views of a far-right senator who is best known as a denier of global warming (Tom Coburn). But Sixty Minutes apparently could not be bothered to present a more balanced picture of the disability program.

The basic fact, which may be painful for CBS News and Sixty Minutes, is that it is not easy to get on Social Security disability. Close to three quarters of applicants are turned down initially and even after appeal, 60 percent of applicants are denied benefits.

George Zornick critiques the 60 Minutes episode.