NPR Reporter Puts Old SSI for Children Myths in New Bottle

No one, I think, was surprised when some Fox News talking heads decided to gin up outrage over former workers who are receiving Social Security Disability Insurance benefits.

But a reporter for NPR’s Planet Money?

True, Chana Joffe-Walt didn’t actually call the workers “moochers” or “takers.”

But her post previewing her This American Life broadcast on SSDI and Supplemental Security Income benefits for children came pretty damn close, though the “takers” in the latter case are very low-income parents of very disabled kids.

I’ve got a lot to say about what she says (and doesn’t). So I’m going to tackle her relatively brief excursion into SSI for children here and deal with her skewed account of SSDI is a separate post.

I’ve written before about the recurrent attacks on SSI for children. Since then, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof took out after the program on the basis of a couple of stories he’d heard on a trip to a poor town in Appalachia.

Parents, he alleged, wouldn’t let their children participate in early literacy programs because they feared they’d lose their SSI benefits if the kids learned to read.

So, he concluded, Congress should cut funding for the program and and put the money saved into “early childhood initiatives” that promote literacy — and marriage.

Swift, smart responses from policy analysts and advocates who actually know how the program works, including a lengthy memo to the Times Public Editor by attorneys Jonathan Stein and Rebecca Vallas at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.

And the Public Editor ultimately agreed that Kristof had “made assertions based on too little direct evidence” and over-simple interpretations of “statistical information.”

Yet Joffe-Walt virtually replicates Kristoff’s core argument and methods.

Look at all those kids getting SSI benefits — and so many of them with “mental or intellectual problems,” rather than physical disabilities that are obvious to any observer.

Look at this one appealing kid. If he “starts doing better in school, overcomes some of his disabilities,” his family’s livelihood would be threatened.

And here’s this one mother who said she didn’t want her teenager son to work because the family would lose their disability checks.

Thus, “the disability program stands in opposition to all … [the] aims” we’d agree on for poor disabled children and their parents.

Not a whit of evidence that the kids’ parents wouldn’t agree on them too. Not a hint that school performance isn’t the sole measure of a child’s eligibility for SSI — or that the teenager’s earnings might have no effect on his disability benefits, since they’d stay the same unless he earned more than $1,640 a month, assuming he stayed in school.

Ira Glass, who hosts This American Life, has defended Joffe-Walt’s report in a response to a documented point-by-point rebuttal, with documentation, posted by Media Matters.

The report, he told the International Business Times “was fact-checked line by line” by an outsider and the editor, as well as by Joffe-Walt herself.

No one to my knowledge, however, is disputing the specific facts in the part on SSI for children, i.e., that more children are now receiving those benefits than in years past, as we’d expect given, among other things, population growth and the rise in child poverty.

It’s the conclusions — both explicit and implied — that prompted Media Matters to call the portion on children “error-riddled.”

Perhaps in addition to talking to some people in Hale County, Alabama, Joffe-Walt might have thought to talk with some of the experts whose work Media Matters cites — and others whose work on the issues she could readily have found with a Google search.

I rather doubt she’s comfortable with the uses Fox Nation and other right-wing media have made of her report.

But if she’d done her homework, she’d have known that she was perpetrating oft-debunked myths intended to undermine a critical source of support for low and moderate-income families, who struggle to cover the costs of raising children with severe disabilities.

NOTE: NPR also broadcast Joffe-Walt’s report on Planet Money and All Things Considered.


4 Responses to NPR Reporter Puts Old SSI for Children Myths in New Bottle

  1. danna416 says:

    It seems like we need better data on unemployment in general. Then maybe there wouldn’t be so many reports like TAL’s. This article talks about the problem with the numbers.

  2. […] last post argued that Chana Joffe-Walt’s account of Supplement Security Income benefits for severely […]

  3. Kathryn Baer says:

    I’m all for better data, Danna, but I’m not sure they’d make a critical difference in how employment and/or disability policy issues are reported. In Joffe-Walt’s case, it’s not that the data she’s using are problematic, in and of themselves. It’s the interpretations she puts on them. My new post on her arguments about SSDI gives some examples,

    The coalition letter I’m linking to at the end of the post offers more.

  4. Boston social security disability lawyer says:

    urprisingly! It’s like you understand my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some images to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is wonderful blog. A good read. I’ll certainly be back.

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