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NPR Trashes The Disabled.

In a piece meant to be a summary of six months of studying a spike in disability claims, NPR has ostensibly written a media white paper to expose moral turpitude among the recently disabled. The piece is titled “Unfit For Work.”

A wheelchair

A new NPR white paper claims disability costs are increasing because of claims by the able-bodied but underemployed.

The kind of conclusions the writer for NPR arrives at are specious at best, and malignant at worst. The implicit assumptions are that many abled persons are applying for and receiving disability insurance benefits and that this is due to loss of jobs in a recessionary economy. The paper’s analysis is argued through and in the presented charts. Applications for disability have risen from 1.5 to 2.0 persons/ per 100 people since the Crash of 2008 and unemployment has doubled. So the implication is that disability has functioned to support those with less education for whom there are now fewer jobs.

While those assumptions have “face validity” and seem emotionally firm, they lack accuracy.

In a response to the NPR report, The Consortium for Citizens With Disabilities has written a rebuttal to the NPR report. They found the NPR report to be incomplete, misleading, and perpetuating dangerous myths about the disabled.

Dean Baker also wrote a rebuttal to the NPR report. He appears to accept the thesis that losing nine million jobs in the economic downturn accounts for the increase in disability claims.  Yet he notes that because of the changing demographics, even the Social Security Administration projected in 1996 that claims would significantly increase through to 2005. There has been a sudden rise in per cent of payroll dedicated to disability since the economic downturn. (Dean Baker’s now added a graph which shows these fluctuations over time.)

The Consortium paper wrote this about the impact of changing demographics:

“The Social Security disability programs have grown significantly since they were signed into law, as well as in recent years. While Ms. Joffe-Walt points to a rise in applications during the recent economic recession, she fails to mention that during the same period the percentage of applicants denied benefits also increased significantly, as individuals who did not meet Social Security’s strict disability standard were screened out. So what explains the rise in people receiving disability benefits?

According to Social Security’s Chief Actuary Steve Goss, the growth in SSDI was expected 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 SSDI based on their own prior contributions.”

The Consortium’s criticisms are based not in opinion. Instead, the Consortium looks at facts. There does not seem to be evidence of an equivalent shift from welfare claims to DI claims.

“The increase in the number of children receiving SSI benefits in the past decade is similarly explained by demographic factors, namely the increase in the number of poor and low-income children. From 2000 to 2011, the number of poor children skyrocketed from about 11 million to over 16 million, and more than 1 in 5 U.S. children live in poverty today. 44 percent of U.S. children now live in low-income households. Since SSI is a means-tested program, more poor and low-income children means more children with disabilities are financially eligible for benefits. Importantly, the share of low-income children who receive SSI benefits has remained constant at about 3 to 4 percent.7

Meanwhile, there is no evidence of a large-scale shift from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—the block grant cash assistance program that replaced Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1996—to the Social Security disability programs. The decline in TANF enrollment from 1996 to 2011 is more than 20 times the magnitude of the increase in SSI child enrollment during that period.8 And the share of SSDI disabled worker beneficiaries with dependent children has actually fallen since 1996, from nearly one-third to about 20% in 2011.9 While loss of TANF might lead a person to apply for SSI or SSDI, being poor is not enough to qualify for disability benefits—an applicant must also meet the strict disability standard.”

Two other points made by the Consortium: Disability beneficiaries numbers are on the decline, and rather than going belly-up as described in the NPR report, the program can put back on sound footing with a routine reallocation of the payroll tax rate –something Congress has done nearly a dozen times in the past, every time it’s been needed.

“Another significant point that Ms. Joffe-Walt leaves out entirely is that the number of disability beneficiaries is projected to decline. As the baby boomers age into retirement, the number of SSDI beneficiaries has already begun to level off and is projected to decline further in the coming years.10 The number of children receiving SSI has also decreased from 2011-2013 and is projected to decline further over the coming decade.11

Instead, Ms. Joffe-Walt mischaracterizes the SSDI trust fund’s projected shortfall. History tells a less dramatic story. Since Social Security was enacted, Congress has “reallocated” payroll tax revenues across the OASI and DI trust funds – about equally in both directions – about 11 times to account for demographic shifts. In 1994, the last time such reallocation occurred, SSA actuaries projected that similar action would next be required in 2016. They were right on target. Experts at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the National Academy of Social Insurance, and SSA’s Chief Actuary have urged Congress to take action to ensure long-term solvency, as it has on several prior occasions.12 “

Is it really so much easier to tell only one side of the story? NPR?  This is a big group, whose fate should not be decided by careless reporting from NPR:

 “Social Security Disability Programs Provide Modest but Vital Support 

About 57 million, or 1 in 5 Americans, live with disabilities. One in 10 has a severe disability. No matter what Ms. Joffe-Walt may think, having a disability is not a “deal” that anyone “has chosen for themselves.” Our nation’s Social Security system provides vital support to about 14 million working-age people with disabilities. Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, is funded through payroll tax contributions. It provides benefits to workers who have contributed enough via payroll taxes to be “covered” and who become disabled before reaching full retirement age. Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, provides support to low-income children and adults with severe disabilities, as well as low-income seniors. Benefits keep millions of people with disabilities from deep poverty and homelessness. For most adult disability beneficiaries, SSI and SSDI make up all or most of their income.1 “

My opinion?

My objection to the NPR paper is that it seems one-sided for a media which is publicly funded. Who is representing the disabled in the NPR piece? Is it fair to use a sample in a county with extremely high unemployment to represent all disability claims groups? No one wakes up one morning and decides to become disabled and unfit for work. There are many disabilities which are invisible. My opinion is that our society is prejudiced against engaging with people with disabilities, at work and in community institutions. If we chose to treat all persons with dignity and respect, we would offer all persons of all abilities a guaranteed role to play in our society. We would provide work and income for all, to every person according to their abilities, interests and needs.


****The  Consortium For Citizens With Disabilities has gathered 100+ signatory organizations for their rebuttal to the NPR report. ( children’s groups, disability groups, civil rights groups, antipoverty groups, healthcare providers, unions, legal aid groups.) For more information about this organization , Email:  to write to Rebecca Vallas of the CCD Social Security Task Force.

More Data and Beautiful Charts here:

*Another resource on the geography, age ranges, and frequency of disability: From Kathy Ruffing of CBPP, writing from their OffTheCharts Blog.

*Dean Baker has also written a second post on the issue of current disability rates to clarify his earlier post and to amplify his graph of actual and projected DI benefits.

*The typical beneficiary is described in a brief post by Kathy Ruffing from CBPP, Off The Charts blog.

*CEPR has written additional criticism of the problematic NPR report’s claims.

*MediaMatters wrote a very well organized  rebuttal of the report’s claims about children receiving SSI benefits.

*NPR has made some important corrections to its online version of the NPR report. This was picked up by Media Matters staff and the corrections are as follows at this LINK.

Update (Wednesday, March 27th, 2013). More opinion:

In trying to place this blatant attack on one of the most effective social welfare programs into perspective, I thought that an attack on disability programs needs to be viewed in the context of the larger pattern of events. The intensified neo-liberal assault on programs which directly provide social and income benefits to Americans in need has to be seen in terms of the big effort toward austerity and making further cuts. The rationalizing of cuts seems to require demonization of claimants as deadbeats or fraudsters, falsification about numbers to create the appearance of excessive spending, and inaccurate claims of benefits being diverted to meet other purposes. These false allegations against disability programs have existed for decades. In the current struggle  for dollars for social programs, false claims can take on an urgency which they do not deserve. We are sapped of more energy when we are forced to use our energy to deny false claims and to make charts to prove our arguments. The time wasted in returning counter arguments would probably have been better spent showing how deficits and Federal debt are meaningless in a depressed economy. We should have spent our hours proving how these fake governmental spending crises  (created by both political parties) are depressing our economy. And, we could be demonstrating how little is being offered to citizens, to help them when they are jobless, when they become disabled, when they lose their homes. Governments do create jobs! And governments do create Social Security programs! Just not when Presidents and politicians decide against doing so.

March 29th, 2013:  The Last Opinion Comment I will make is that it did not take long for WaPo to come back with “5 reforms to make to the Disability Program”. It is basically a “they are not so disabled, just get them jobs” response. I agree that everyone can have a role to play in our society and that there should be a guarantee for work and income for all. However, I think these reforms do not really fix problems of discrimination, nor do they respond to the special needs of the disabled. They remain fixated on the money.


Update: 3/28/2013: Signatories to the statement “Unfit for NPR” rebuttal written by the Consortium For Citizens With Disabilites:

Members of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities:



Ambulatory Behavioral Healthcare

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

American Counseling Association

The Arc of the United States

Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs (ATAP)

Autism National Committee (AutCom)

Autistic Self-Advocacy Network

Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

Brain Injury Association of America

Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD)

Community Legal Services, Inc. – Philadelphia

Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund

Easter Seals

Health & Disability Advocates

Mental Health America

National Alliance on Mental Illness

National Association for Children’s Behavioral Health

National Association of County Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities Directors (NACBHDD)

National Association of Disability Representatives

National Association of School Psychologists

National Association of State Directors of Special Education

National Association of State Head Injury Administrators

National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare

National Disability Rights Network

National Down Syndrome Society

National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health

National Multiple Sclerosis Society

National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives

Paralyzed Veterans of America

United Spinal Association


Joined by:


The Advocacy Institute

Advocacy for Peace and Justice Committee of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia

AIDS Foundation of Chicago

AIDS Legal Council of Chicago

The Alliance for Children’s Rights

American Federation of Government Employees Local 3937

Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW Local 2325

California Council of Churches/California Church IMPACT

Capital Area Center for Independent Living

Cares of Washington

Center for Civil Justice

Center for Law and Social Policy

Center for Women Policy Studies

Children’s Alliance (Washington State)

The Children’s Disability Project at Greater Boston Legal Services, On Behalf of Eligible Clients

The Children’s Leadership Council, a coalition of more than 50 child advocacy organizations

Claire Heureuse Community Center

Community Justice Project

Connecticut Legal Services

Creative Alternatives, Inc.

Disability Law Center – Massachusetts

Disciples Justice Action Network

The Elder, Health & Disability Unit of Greater Boston Legal Services, on behalf of its clients

Empire Justice Center

Family Voices

Foundation for Senior Living

Frances Perkins Center

Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger

Hill Foundation for Families Facing Disabilities

Inner City Law Center – Los Angeles

Homeless Action Center

Homeless Advocacy Project

Kentucky Equal Justice Center

LAF (formerly Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago)

Lakeshore Legal Aid / Counsel & Advocacy Law Line (CALL)

Law Foundation of Silicon Valley

Legal Aid Justice Center

Legal Services of Central New York

Legal Services of Eastern Michigan

Little People of America

The Lurie Institute on Disability Policy, Brandeis University

Michigan Disability Rights Coalition

Nassau/Suffolk Law Services Committee, Inc.

National Center for Law and Economic Justice

National Council of La Raza

National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals, AFGE

National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty

National Senior Citizens Law Center

New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty

New York Lawyers for the Public Interest

New York State Independent Living Council, Inc. (NYSILC)

Our Lady of Angels Convent

People Organized for Our Rights, Inc. (P.O.O.R.)

Parents Organizing For Welfare and Economic Rights (POWER)

Positive Resource Center

Public Law Center (Santa Ana, CA)

San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program

The Shriver Center

Statewide Poverty Action Network – Washington

Success Against All Odds

Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project

Washington Low Income Housing Alliance
The Welfare Law Unit at Greater Boston Legal Services

WestCoast Children’s Clinic

Western Center on Law and Poverty

YWCA – Lancaster


Photo by Peter Pearson released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.

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