We’re used to media scaremongering over Social Security retirement insurance, claiming that benefits must be cut because the program is about to run out of money (Extra!, 10/10). But lately media have pushed a different Social Security story, claiming that there has been an alarming and suspicious explosion in the number of people getting Social Security disability benefits. After that message was sent loud and clear by a recent CBS 60 Minutes broadcast (10/6/13), CounterSpin’s Peter Hart spoke about the reality of disability insurance with Rebecca Vallas, deputy director of government affairs at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR).
CounterSpin: Now, this segment opens with Steve Kroft. He’s sitting in front of a backdrop that shows hands reaching for dollar bills. Disability has, in his words, been called a “secret welfare system with its own disability industrial complex, a system ravaged by waste and fraud.” This is not exactly subtle. So, broadly speaking, what was it that CBS got so wrong or misrepresented so badly in this broadcast?
Rebecca Vallas: I’m really glad that you started with that kind of setting of the stage: The dollar bills falling into hands, it was all very sensationalized, and I think that that really set the tone for the whole piece. Unfortunately, the 60 Minutes piece was incredibly misleading; it was inaccurate, but it was also incredibly one-sided, and it was really missing many essential facts about the disability programs as well as the people that they help.
And I have to say it was surprising and really disappointing to see 60 Minutes repeat so many of the same myths and inaccuracies as the NPR and Planet Money series [This American Life, 3/22/13; All Things Considered, 3/22–29/13] that ran earlier this year on the same subject, given that that NPR Planet Money series was so widely discredited. So I guess it was no surprise that the 60 Minutes report itself was also quickly denounced by factcheckers and disability advocates [Media Matters, 10/7/13; The Nation, 10/8/13], who understand the programs apparently much better than 60 Minutes producers.
CS: The first sort of unchallenged assumption in the piece is that it’s really easy to get disability benefits. There’s a judge who’s quoted in it and says, “If the American public knew what was going on in our system, half would be outraged; the other half would apply for benefits.” You have people who work in the benefits claims processing offices saying 30, 40, 50 percent of the people who come in absolutely don’t deserve disability.
CBS is sitting in front of a Walmart parking lot, because they were told, when the checks go out, the parking lot is full of people who, the implication is, don’t deserve disability but love the free money. How hard is it to get disability?
RV: Part of what was so fascinating and disappointing about 60 Minutes’ reporting here was that it was almost entirely based on unsubstantiated rumors and on speculation, and that they then used those rumors and speculation to draw broad, sweeping conclusions about the entire Social Security disability programs, without even pointing to any evidence of anything.
The real story of the Social Security disability programs is that it’s incredibly hard to qualify for benefits. According to the OECD , we, the United States, have the most restrictive and least generous disability benefits system of all member countries, apart from Korea. Fewer than 4 in 10 applicants are approved for benefits, even after all stages of appeal. And many people with significant disabilities and serious illnesses are denied benefits.
So even the death rates of beneficiaries are incredibly high; 1 in 5 male and 1 in 6 female beneficiaries die within five years of being approved, and beneficiaries are more than three times more likely to die than other people their same age. And those statistics don’t even capture the countless number of people who die waiting to be approved for benefits, something that happened to clients of mine when I was representing individuals seeking disability benefits.
So if the 60 Minutes producers had really talked to anyone who had been through the process of applying for benefits, or who was a disability policy expert, or who even had ever helped a loved one seeking to go through the process, they would have known you don’t just sign up for benefits; really, nothing could be further from the truth.
CS: And the target in the piece was this lawyer, right out of central casting, sort of a lawyer villain; he’s got TV commercials where he promises you’re going to get your disability checks, he refuses to sit down for an interview, talks to them in the parking lot.
It does give you the impression that this anecdote that they’re pursuing so doggedly illustrates a larger problem, and I think that’s one of the most dangerous parts of this broadcast.
The spike in disability enrollment is arguably what set some of all this off, and it’s not that that’s made-up, but there is an explanation for why more people are on disability now than were 10–20 years ago, right?
RV: That’s absolutely right. Again, if 60 Minutes’ producers had actually spoken to the Social Security Administration, and in particular to their actuaries, they would have found that the growth in disability insurance was not only expected, but is almost entirely the result of demographics. And in really leaving that out of their reporting, instead of telling the dog-bites-man but more the man-bites-dog story, 60 Minutes demonstrated a pretty blatant ignorance of well-known facts about the program.
They posed the question, “Where did all these people with disabilities come from?” Well, if they had actually done some research, they would have found that that question has been asked and answered time and again. First and foremost, it’s the baby boomers aging into their high disability years; in addition, it’s women who entered the workforce in significantly greater numbers in the 1970s and in the ’80s, and so now they can qualify for disability insurance based on their own prior contributions; and, thirdly, we’ve raised the retirement age, which means that people who qualify for benefits on the basis of a disability continue to collect disability benefits for longer before they convert over to retirement benefits. So it really seems that 60 Minutes was looking for a sensational story, because the real story isn’t all that sexy.
CS: And we should note that this story seemed to be based on the research of a right-wing Republican senator, Tom Coburn, a climate change and debt-ceiling denier. So it gives you some sense of the political angle here.
It does suggest that there are some powerful forces who want to push certain policy outcomes. Do you get the sense that disability benefits are now on the menu of social insurance programs that are “old-fashioned” and “too expensive” and must be cut back?
RV: It’s heartbreaking to take a look back at history and to see that this is hardly the first time that we’ve seen this play out. As recently as the mid-’90s, we saw a drumbeat of negative media around the disability programs and, as a result, there was legislation-by-anecdote that Congress pushed through; later on it turned out that the media reports that had formed the basis for a huge media feeding frenzy were unsubstantiated. But it was too late, because Congress had already acted and had significantly cut benefits for over 100,000 children.
As I said, we’ve seen this before. I think we know how this story ends if we don’t put the brakes on and say, let’s not rush to implement policy by anecdote. Let’s actually take a look at the facts, let’s not look at individual anecdotes and then try and scale up and assume that the entire system is broken. Let’s be more careful this time.