It was a story that, if true, was certainly alarming: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (12/9/12) reported that poor families in Appalachian Kentucky were pulling their kids out of literacy classes. The reason: They feared that if their kids learned to read, it would disqualify them from receiving monthly $698 disability checks from the federal government’s Supplemental Security Income program.
“Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire,” wrote Kristof. “Most wrenching of all are the parents who think it’s best if a child stays illiterate, because then the family may be able to claim a disability check each month.”
And, he worried:
Those kids may never recover: A 2009 study found that nearly two-thirds of these children make the transition at age 18 into SSI for the adult disabled. They may never hold a job in their entire lives and are condemned to a life of poverty on the dole—and that’s the outcome of a program intended to fight poverty.
It was a new twist on an old argument in American politics: Programs that help the poor, from welfare to public housing to food stamps, have created perverse incentives for low-income families to stay on the dole rather than seeking to improve their own condition. “This is painful for a liberal to admit,” wrote Kristof, “but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency.”
Kristof’s article was notable for another reason, however. According to numerous disability experts, it was almost entirely wrong or unsupported:
• Children can’t earn SSI payments simply by being illiterate. Rather, they need to receive a medical diagnosis that shows their family could use additional cash to offset the wages lost from staying home with a disabled child or taking them to doctor’s appointments. And SSI eligibility standards are relatively strict; the Social Security Administration rejects about 60 percent of all applications for children’s benefits, and reviews each case every three years to determine whether to cut off aid (TheNation.com, 12/14/12).
• The 2009 Mathematica Policy Research study cited by Kristof doesn’t actually support his contention that childhood disability benefits lead to a life on the dole. What it did find was that two-thirds of those receiving SSI at age 17 remained eligible for the program under adult criteria when they hit age 18—suggesting that SSI is actually doing a good job of identifying the truly disabled, and not merely kids who are having trouble in school.
• Most startling, Kristof never found any actual parents who’d pulled their children from literacy classes. Instead, his story relied entirely on the word of Billie Oaks, whom he cited as running “a literacy program here in Breathitt County, a poor part of Kentucky.” (She is actually a literacy teacher with the Breathitt County school system; the county has no formal literacy programs—NYTimes.com, 1/23/13.) Kristof later posted on his blog (1/23/13) that he’d spoken with Oaks and others “at a lunch discussion with a half-dozen local school officials and several in-state Save the Children representatives”—but still no actual families who’d done the alleged deed.
It was all enough to earn Kristof a public chiding from Times public editor Margaret Sullivan (NYTimes.com, 1/29/13) for making “assertions [that] were based on too little direct evidence” and using “statistical information that is, at the very least, open to interpretation.”
Yet Kristof’s column turned out to be just the opening salvo of a series of high-profile news reports exposing America’s alleged plague of skyrocketing disability benefits. (Though federal benefits are split into two programs—SSI for low-income adults and children, and Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, for disabled higher-income workers—most media coverage conflates them into “disability.”)
In a March series, NPR’s Planet Money revisited the world of SSI, this time for adults—and seemed to have learned few of the lessons of the Kristof mess. Calling the program “a hidden, increasingly expensive safety net” and “a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills” (NPR.org, 3/13), NPR’s Chana Joffe-Walt painted a picture of soaring disability rolls and nebulous diagnoses, where a “disability industrial complex” is pushing people willy-nilly onto the dole whether they need it or not (All Things Considered, 3/25/13).
Joffe-Walt’s series, which appeared on All Things Considered, This American Life and the NPR.org website, was more nuanced in some respects. After noting that “my editor has a herniated disc, and he works harder than anyone I know,” Joffe-Walt acknowledged that the decision to apply for disability benefits might be different if your realistic job prospects are limited to physical labor. When she asked low-wage workers with back or shoulder ailments why they couldn’t just seek out desk jobs, she related (All Things Considered, 3/25/13), she received bewildered looks: “It was as if I was asking, well, how come you didn’t consider becoming an astronaut?”
The main thrust of the series, though, remained that if the formerly employed are shifting to disability checks, the results can only be dire. “Going on disability means, assuming you rely only on those disability payments, you will be poor for the rest of your life,” wrote Joffe-Walt for her NPR.org story. She also echoed Kristof’s claims, insisting that “when you are a kid, a disability can be anything that prevents you from progressing in school,” and stating that SSI is discouraging families from encouraging their kids to do well in school because they’re afraid to jeopardize their government checks.
As with Kristof’s piece, the NPR series led to a firestorm of rebuttals, pointing out significant flaws in the reporting. Media Matters (3/22/13), calling the NPR piece “error-riddled,” cited a Government Accounting Office study (6/26/12) that found disability examiners typically relied on four to five separate medical and school records before making a determination, as well as studies by the Center for American Progress (9/10/12) and the National Bureau of Economic Research (8/05) that found receiving SSI reduced the chances of a family being below the poverty line by 11 percent.
Another segment in NPR’s series (All Things Considered, 3/27/13), devoted to the claim that states are ducking the goals of the 1996 welfare reform law by paying consultants to shift the poor onto SSI, earned a rebuke from Shawn Fremstad of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (3/29/13). Fremstad noted there’s been no sign of a jump in SSI benefits to women or the young in that time—something you’d expect to see if large numbers of people were shifting from cash benefits to SSI, since welfare applicants are predominantly young single mothers.
Hale County, Alabama, which served as the focus of Joffe-Walt’s NPR series—a place where, she reported, “nearly 1 in 4 working-age adults is on disability” and on the day that government checks arrive, “banks stay open late, Main Street fills up with cars, and anybody looking to unload an old TV or armchair has a yard sale”—is an outlier for disability numbers for several reasons, none of them nefarious, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Kathy Ruffing (4/15/13) noted: The county sports an atypically large number of aging and poorly educated workers, as well as a preponderance of manual-labor jobs that are hard to perform with even minor physical disabilities.
Complaints about the alleged “disability con” had long been a stock gripe of right-wing pundits such as Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly (FAIR Blog, 7/6/12). But the NPR series set off a flurry of copycat articles in the mainstream press that bemoaned disability as home of the new welfare cheats.
In the Washington Post (4/8/13), op-ed columnist Charles Lane decried SSI as a “drain [on] the Treasury” that discourages people from working. At Time.com (4/9/13), Joe Klein called Social Security Disability “an end-run around the [welfare] system” and a “scam” that “has no work requirement.” The next day, the Wall Street Journal (4/10/13) wrote that workers who’d “piled into the Social Security Administration’s disability program [threaten] to cost the economy tens of billions a year in lost wages and diminished tax revenues.”
Complaints about a lack of work requirements are especially puzzling, since SSDI, after all, is a program specifically designed to support those who have difficulty working thanks to disabilities. And it’s even more baffling in a world where, far from a shortage of workers, nearly 12 million Americans are currently looking for work but can’t find it—something that would be even worse if those receiving SSI were somehow forced to enter the workforce.
The number of Americans receiving disability benefits has indeed risen steadily over the years, but there are plenty of demographic reasons why. As a group of eight former Social Security commissioners (4/4/13) wrote in an open letter in response to the NPR story:
The growth that we’ve seen was predicted by actuaries as early as 1994 and is mostly the result of two factors: Baby Boomers entering their high-disability years, and women entering the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s so that more are now “insured” for DI based on their own prior contributions.
(Like Social Security, SSDI is paid for out of workers’ own payroll tax contributions.)
At the same time, rising poverty rates have made more households eligible for SSI, further swelling the overall disability rolls. According to a study by Fremstad (CEPR, 8/7/11), the number of children receiving SSI rose 42 percent between 2000 and 2009—but that number largely tracked the number of children poor enough to be eligible for SSI, which rose 34 percent.
What has changed is that cutting SSI has become a primary policy target for political think tanks on the right and center (Investor’s Business Daily, 12/17/10; Hamilton Project, 3/29/13). In his piece, Kristof cited as a main source Richard Burkhauser, who said that as a result of SSI, “if you do better in school, you threaten the income of the parents. It’s a terrible incentive.” Kristof identified Burkhauser as a “Cornell economist who recently wrote a book on disability programs.”
That book, The Declining Work and Welfare of People With Disabilities, was in fact published by the conservative American Enterprise Institute—home to Bell Curve author and welfare-reform godfather Charles Murray—which has fixed its sights on disability benefits for several years. Burkhauser is also a resident scholar at AEI, something Kristof never mentioned in his reporting.
Burkhauser’s book was also the source of Kristof’s erroneous report that 8 percent of poor children receive SSI—a number that Kristof (NYTimes.com, 1/23/13) later wrote that he factchecked by asking Burkhauser himself, who unsurprisingly confirmed it. (The actual figure, as later calculated by Fremstad—CEPR, 12/20/12—is less than 4 percent.)
NPR’s Joffe-Walt said she was alerted to the growing disability rolls—or as she put it, “14 million people hidden in plain sight”—by Wharton business economist Mark Duggan (All Things Considered, 3/22/13), who has advocated that the disabled be required to rely on private disability insurance for two years before they can switch to the government program (WSJ.com, 11/30/10). She also interviewed both Burkhauser (All Things Considered, 3/28/13) and his co-author Mary Daly (All Things Considered, 3/27/13) without noting their ties to AEI or to each other.
NPR, meanwhile, may have had its own reasons to want to seek out problems with government disability benefits: The Planet Money story was the first under a three-month underwriting deal with Lincoln Financial, a company that sells private disability insurance (to, among other clients, AEI—Daily Kos, 4/25/13)—something that NPR didn’t see fit to mention anywhere in its radio or online coverage.
The 1994 ‘Disability Mercedes’ Scare
As Jonathan Stein and Rebecca Vallas of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia noted in a letter to New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan (later reprinted on Kristof’s Times blog—1/23/13), nearly 20 years ago the U.S. saw “an earlier round of SSI child disability media frenzy” that, like the recent Times and NPR reports, also originated in the poor, rural South.
In 1994, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (2/13/94) reported that some local residents were receiving tens of thousands of dollars a year in “crazy checks” for their mentally disabled kids. The story later spread to the front pages of the Washington Post (2/4/94) and Boston Globe (5/12/94). Eventually, ABC’s PrimeTime Live (10/13/94; Extra!, 3–4/95) declared children’s SSI to be “a government program gone haywire,” charging that children were “faking disabilities” after being coached by their parents.
Forbes Media Critic, in an article titled “A Media Crusade Gone Haywire” (9/95), soon revealed that four major studies of the SSI program—by the General Accounting Office, the Department of Health and Human Services, a congressional Disability Policy Panel, and the Social Security Administration—had all agreed that “there is no evidence of widespread fraud or abuse of the program.” The Social Security Administration had reviewed 617 claims and found only 13 cases of possible coaching—in only three of which were benefits approved (CounterSpin, 7/15/95).
By then, though, the image of disability cheats had already struck a chord with a Congress dominated by House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s fulminations against welfare fraud. The House Ways and Means Committee watched a tape of PrimeTime Live’s “Crazy Checks” segment, and Congress voted to establish new eligibility restrictions that dropped more than 100,000 disabled children from SSI.
Today’s disability crisismongers likewise hope to convert public concern over supposed fraud into policy changes. Both Burkhauser and the state-officials organization the Secretary’s Innovation Group—headed by Jason Turner, the former Wisconsin and New York City welfare administrator who once explained that the way to cut the welfare rolls was to create “a personal crisis in individuals’ lives”—have called for turning SSI into a state-run block grant with work requirements, similar to the changes that were instituted for welfare in 1996, since which time the number of recipients has plummeted by about 50 percent (Urban Institute, 5/14/12).