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Disabled Now Blamed for Social Security’s Woes AND Sluggish Economy

Shadowed wheel chair

The mainstream media continues to blame the disabled. Will this create more public support for austerity?

Recently, Planet Money at NPR, wrote a hit-piece accusing the disabled of fraudulently obtaining benefits through SSI and SSDI. Contagion followed and other pundits compounded the NPR error by repeating the falsehoods. But now we have WSJ ‘piling on’ to blame the disabled for leaving the workforce and creating a sluggish economy. The disabled are the designated ‘bad guys.’

… unexpectedly large number of American workers who piled into the Social Security Administration’s disability program during the recession and its aftermath threatens to cost the economy tens of billions a year in lost wages and diminished tax revenues.

Signs of the problem surfaced Friday, in a dismal jobs report that showed U.S. labor force participation rates falling last month to the lowest levels since 1979, the wrong direction for an economy that instead needs new legions of working men and women to drive growth and sustain a baby boomer generation headed to retirement. 

There are more people qualifying for disability because there are more people entering into the disability danger zone. This is an effect of a larger generation entering into the age when injuries and illnesses occur.

This weekend, former Social Security Commissioners, moved by conscience to respond, came out with a written statement in opposition to the falsehoods being promoted about both the disabled and about the programs which serve the severely disabled, and which are very, very difficult to qualify for.

Disability programs are notoriously difficult to qualify for, often taking years to establish claims, and requiring expert testimony/reports to validate claims. Here are two paragraphs from the Ex-Commissioners’ Letter:

“Approximately 1 in 5 of our fellow Americans live with disabilities, but only those with the most significant disabilities qualify for disability benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Title II Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (DI) benefits and Title XVI Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits provide critical support to millions of Americans with the most severe disabilities, as well as their dependents and survivors. Disabled beneficiaries often report multiple impairments, and many have such poor health that they are terminally ill: about 1 in 5 male DI beneficiaries and 1 in 7 female DI beneficiaries die within 5 years of receiving benefits.

Despite their impairments, many beneficiaries attempt work using the work incentives under the Social Security Act, and some do work part-time. For example, research by Mathematica and SSA finds that about 17 percent of beneficiaries worked in 2007. However, their earnings are generally very low (two-thirds of those who worked in 2007 earned less than $5,000 for the whole year), and only a small share are able to earn enough to be self-sufficient and leave the DI and SSI programs each year. Without Social Security or SSI, the alternatives for many beneficiaries are simply unthinkable.

The statutory standard for approval is very strict, and was made even more so in 1996. To implement this strict standard, Social Security Administration (SSA) regulations, policies, and procedures require extensive documentation and medical evidence at all levels of the application process. Less than one third of initial DI and SSI applications are approved, and only about 40 percent of adult DI and SSI applicants receive benefits even after all levels of appeal. As with adults, most children who apply are denied SSI, and only the most severely impaired qualify for benefits.”

If you read the WSJ article you can see the message loud and clear: These disability claimants who are leaving the workforce, are responsible for our sluggish economy. This is piling on of a different sort. A Twofer of blame: NPR alleges fraud and exploitation of Social Security. WSJ adds blame for our economic woes.

This is a movie we have seen before in the early 1980s before Social Security was cut by 19% for all future beneficiaries. Scare articles were published about people falsely qualifying for disability, and doubt was cast about the integrity of Social Security. Writers and institutions who promote doubt as to the integrity of Social Security are fully responsible for the subsequent cuts made in the program. Remember that the messaging starts with plutocrats on Wall Street and then is spread like a virus through their media collaborators. The corrective push-back is left to a few knowledgeable former Commissioners, advocacy groups and social scientists.

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