NPR Reporter Gets Worker Disability Benefits Wrong Too

My last post argued that Chana Joffe-Walt’s account of Supplement Security Income benefits for severely disabled children delivered a sweeping attack on the program based on no hard evidence — and very little soft.

A “facile extrapolation from the individual story to national policy,” as Professor James Kwak characterizes it.

We see similar leaps from anecdotes and observations gleaned during a couple of trips to poor communities in Joffe-Walt’s assessment of Social Security Disability Insurance, though she’s got a few data sets too–long-term trends she’s selected and paired to bolster dubious conclusions.

She discovers that applications for SSDI rise and fall with the unemployment rate — applications, mind you, not approvals.

She sees that the percents of newly-qualified SSDI recipients diagnosed with back pain, other “musculoskeletal problems” and mental illness are higher than they were 50 years ago.

These, to her, aren’t “unambiguous,” the way injuries from an auto accident are. They’re “squishy,” in fact, just like the diagnosed “mental and intellectual problems” of kids.

She looks at the few job openings in Hale County, Alabama — a high-poverty, high-unemployment rural part of the state. And she discovers that the jobs require heavy lifting, standing all day or specialized postsecondary education.

From these various factoids, she concludes that “disability has become a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills.”

But what the job demands actually show is that Hale County SSDI recipients who’ve met the high standards for eligibility can’t do the work they did before or other work that would enable them to earn more than $1,040 a month because of their medical condition.

Joffe-Walt acknowledges in passing that the rising number of people receiving SSDI benefits is due partly to the fact that the workforce is getting older, i.e., that it includes a higher portion of people 55 and older.

This warrants more than a mention, as the age distribution of SSDI recipients shows. More than two-thirds of them are over 50 and three in ten at least 60 — up in those age brackets when disabling conditions become more common.

Consider too that job loss means loss of employer-sponsored health insurance for those fortunate enough to have had it.

So it’s possible that chronic conditions formerly controlled by medication and treatment worsen to the point of becoming debilitating, as a report by the Republican minority on the Senate Permanent Committee on Investigations acknowledges.

Yet the clear message Joffe-Walt delivers is that lots of SSDI recipients could work and choose not to because the disability payments, plus the Medicare eligibility that goes with them is a better deal than a minimum wage job that probably doesn’t include a health insurance benefit.

This is a clear, if unintended, indictment of our government’s long-term failure to preserve the real-dollar value of the minimum wage — and its failure, until recently, to grapple with the high rate of uninsured low-wage workers.

But it’s extraordinarily misleading to suggest that SSDI recipients make a choice* to sign up for the deal when they could do otherwise without sinking into utter destitution.

Just over 40% of SSDI claims are ultimately approved — one measure of how severely disabled recipients must be, at least from a potential earnings perspective.

As Joffe-Walt rightly notes, the SSDI program is expected to exhaust its reserves by 2016. Congress will probably shore it up temporarily, as it has in the past — unless, by then, it’s arrived at a holistic solution to Trust Fund solvency.

She, however, envisions some “comprehensive plan” that inferentially would dramatically reduce the number of people found “unfit to work,” but really suffering from the lack of “skills and education to make it in our country.”

No one would quarrel with the view that people without specialized skills and/or some postsecondary education have a hard time making it in our economy.

But SSI and SSDI aren’t, as Joffe-Walt calls them, a “default plan” for them, since they can’t qualify unless they’re also so severely impaired that they’re unable to “engage in substantial gainful activity.”

A higher bar, of course, for Joffe-Walt’s editor with a herniated disc than for someone whose whole work life has been spent hauling boxes in a warehouse.

But that shouldn’t make disability a perplexing, ambiguous concept, as it apparently is for her — or lead to the conclusion that it’s s sort of early retirement program for the former warehouse worker.

Fortunately, we have a highly-expert, engaged advocacy community that’s pounced on her report.

You can find more myth-busting facts in a statement they’ve issued and in a series of posts by Kathy Ruffing on the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities blog.

* NPR has now edited Joffe-Walt’s statement to this effect, along with several others. The drift of her argument is unchanged.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this, eight former commissioners of the Social Security Administration issued a public letter that presents key facts about SSI and SSDI recipients and program growth. It includes an oblique, but unmistakable reference to Joffe-Walt’s report as one of the “sensational, anecdote-based media accounts” that mischaracterizes the programs.

3 Responses to NPR Reporter Gets Worker Disability Benefits Wrong Too

  1. danna416 says:

    The TAL story was interesting. I wonder about the ‘gap’ in the data both in the story and presented by the SSA. This post looks at the problems with our stats.

  2. […] so depressing is that we’ve been round this barn over and over again. Someone — an NPR reporter, for example, or a Fox News talking head — asserts that a lot of SSDI recipients could work […]

  3. […] was going to take a pass — partly because I dealt with these allegations when an NPR reporter patched together factoids and personal opinions to […]

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