There's been a story going around for months now (Extra!, 6/13) that tries to portray a disability crisis. We're told that able-bodied Americans are choosing to get easy disability checks rather than find work, and that this gaming of the system has the Social Security disability program headed towards collapse.
It's a story that has made its way all around elite media, from Fox News Channel to the New York Times op-ed page to the public radio show This American Life. And now to 60 Minutes, the CBS newsmagazine still considered the gold standard in commercial TV news.
So what did Steve Kroft's October 6 disability story get wrong?
It wasn't hard to tell where the segment was coming from. Kroft started off saying the disability insurance program "could become the first government benefits program to run out of money." Disability was originally "envisioned as a small program to assist people who were unable to work," but now it "serves nearly 12 million people–up 20 percent in the last six years–and has a budget of $135 billion." As if to make matters even more obvious, the backdrop during Kroft's introduction showed hands reaching for dollar bills.
Kroft says disability has "been called a 'secret welfare system' with it's own 'disability industrial complex,' a system ravaged by waste and fraud."
The piece was driven by Sen. Tom Coburn, a far-right Republican from Oklahoma perhaps best-known for being a climate change denier. Coburn's staff is investigating disability fraud, and just so happens to be releasing a report on the issue the day after the 60 Minutes segment aired.
Coburn wonders why there are so many disabled people, and the CBS report notes that the "Social Security Administration, which runs the disability program, says the explosive surge is due to aging baby boomers and the lingering effects of a bad economy."
That's basically the last time CBS viewers heard anything resembling a challenge to the story's narrative, which portrays a system easy to cheat, thanks to crooked lawyers and a bureaucracy that can't say no to new applicants.
Kroft tells viewers Coburn's investigation shows something different: "Last year, his staff randomly selected hundreds of disability files and found that 25 percent of them should never have been approved–another 20 percent, he said, were highly questionable."
And then CBS quotes a disability judge who says that "if the American public knew what was going on in our system, half would be outraged and the other half would apply for benefits." CBS also talks to two people who have processed Social Security disability claims in West Virginia who believe the system is broken, and they make the claim that in one town people know to avoid stores like Walmart right after the checks have gone out because everyone is out shopping.
CBS's journalistic contribution to this is to show a Walmart parking lot, with Kroft noting that "not everyone in the throngs we saw is on disability," but that the pair that processed claims "say there's no question that a lot of them are and probably shouldn't be."
It's not exactly rigorous reporting, and it's clearly not intended to be. CBS spends a long time waiting outside the office of a disability lawyer well known in West Virginia and Kentucky for successfully getting benefits for his clients. The lawyer is one of the targets of the Coburn investigation.
With any complicated benefits program, the main question CBS should want to settle is whether there's any actual evidence that widespread cheating of the program is going on. CBS was either uninterested in that, or decided that its stacked panel of talking heads provided the answer they wanted to hear. But there's strong evidence that there's not a lot of cheating going on.
As economist Dean Baker (Beat the Press, 10/7/13) wrote:
The basic fact, which may be painful for CBS News and 60 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.
Or as the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (10/4/13) explained in a letter to CBS:
The Social Security disability standard is incredibly strict, and just four in 10 applicants are awarded benefits. Award rates have further declined during the recent economic downturn. Demonstrating eligibility requires extensive medical evidence, and even people with life-threatening illnesses can wait months if not years to receive benefits. Many individuals are denied despite significant disabilities and chronic illnesses.
That's not the impression CBS viewers were given. Kroft alluded to cases that "involved ailments with subjective symptoms like backache, depression and fibromyalgia"–which seemed designed to send the message that the process made it easy to get disability checks for "subjective" reasons.
So what explains that surge in disability payments? As Neil deMause noted in Extra! (6/13 ), it should not come as a surprise:
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.)
So the growth in the program was expected, and the process is not designed for fast approval.
There's no doubt that some people try to take advantage of any kind of government programs; the lawyer CBS focused on was unwilling to say much on camera about what he does, and there's obviously a story there that requires further investigation.
But journalism like this needs to put these kinds of anecdotes in context. The failure to do that feeds the misleading notion that the poor and disabled really aren't in need of the financial support they're getting–and thus the program should be cut back.
That might be why a deficit hawk like Coburn is pushing this story. But what's CBS's excuse?