May 1 1995

Are Disabled Children Ripping You Off–Or Did PrimeTime Live Tell a Big Fib?

Few targets of the “welfare reform” campaign are more vulnerable than disabled children. Yet funds for those children, in the form of the Supplemental Security Income program, were under attack on PrimeTime Live‘s Oct. 13, 1994 broadcast.

“It’s a program designed to help disabled children, but parents are helping themselves,” ABC‘s Diane Sawyer announced. “Chief correspondent Chris Wallace discovers all you need is a child willing to tell a big fib.”

Co-anchor Sam Donaldson echoed her: “Chief correspondent Chris Wallace discovered just how easy it is to get on the receiving end of what some are calling ‘crazy checks.'”

Wallace declared: “Guidelines are so vague and lax that even normal children can qualify for benefits, sometimes after being coached by their parents.”

A shocking statement. But what’s PrimeTime‘s evidence? The roving camera turns up one example of a family that’s been accused of coaching its children. No proof is presented; just allegations.

The segment heavily featured Dr. Nora Cooke Porter, a pediatrician who was fired as a contractor by the Social Security Administration because she insisted on rejecting applicants that other evaluators ruled had legitimate disabilities. Porter seems uniquely sensitive to abuses in the SSI program; she was virtually the only “expert” source in earlier attempts to expose SSI fraud in the Washington Post (2/4/94) and the Boston Globe (5/12/94).

“It’s an open invitation to fraud,” Porter told PrimeTime. She went on to suggest that parents were buying Mercedes cars with their children’s disability checks, updating the “welfare Cadillac” imagery for the ’90s.

Porter claimed–without providing documentation–that “probably fewer than 30 percent” of children receiving SSI are truly disabled. “If Porter’s estimates are anywhere near accurate, then SSI…has become a massive taxpayer-funded scam,” Wallace stated.

But are her estimates are anywhere near accurate? Evidence suggests that her estimates are preposterous. According to a September 1994 report from Congress’ General Accounting Office, one-third of children receiving SSI have serious physical disabilities. Another 40 percent are severely mentally retarded. Few would accuse these children, more than 70 percent of the cases, of “faking” disability. PrimeTime made no reference to this report, which completely undermined the claims of its star witness.

The program did mention an internal Social Security Administration investigation, which reviewed 617 applications and found that there was possible cheating in only 13 of them. But Wallace dismissed this study–by turning to you-know-who. “Don’t tell Dr. Porter about correct decisions,” Wallace scoffed. Porter then related an irrelevant anecdote about an SSI applicant who had carried a gun.

The flimsiness of the evidence presented by PrimeTime to back up sweeping charges was characteristic of much of the coverage of the SSI issue. It’s little wonder, given the hysteria of the coverage and the mood in Congress, that some representatives are talking about eliminating cash grants to disabled children altogether.

PrimeTime Live‘s segment, which aired the month before the ’92 election, had already caught the mood of the Republican victory. The one child who was presented as truly deserving of SSI, a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, was white. The family accused of cheating, and other families accused of misspending benefits, were all black.