A just-released report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) reveals that, once again, the “serious people” in Washington are weaponizing shoddy, inaccurate data to stoke false claims about Social Security. The CAP report exposes The Washington Post’s misuse of data to inflate the numbers of working-age Americans receiving Social Security disability insurance benefits.
The Post sensationally – and inaccurately – claimed, in a recent front-page story entitled, “Disabled, or just desperate?”, that as many as one in three working-age Americans living in the nation’s rural communities are turning to disability benefits as a form of unemployment insurance. As CAP’s close analysis of the underlying data uncovered, the Post’s outrageous claim overcounts, by literally millions, the numbers of working-age adults receiving disability benefits. The end result is an inaccurate, over-the-top depiction of a supposed disability crisis in rural America that gives opponents of Social Security the justification and arguments they have been looking for to advocate cuts to Social Security.
The Post’s false claims are just the latest in a slew of ongoing attempts to attack Social Security by singling out its earned disability insurance protections. Recently, President Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, publicly questioned whether Social Security’s protection against lost wages in the event of disability is even part of Social Security. The claim is part of his admitted campaign to convince his boss, Donald Trump, to break his promise not to cut Social Security. Soon after, The Washington Post released its now-discredited article, which implied that Social Security’s earned benefits were creating a culture of dependency and despair in the nation’s rural communities. Unfortunately, this story, part of a barely-concealed Post vendetta against Social Security, is only the opening salvo in what will be a series of articles.
Not content with a serial, longform attack on those collecting their earned Social Security benefits, the Post’s Editorial Board used the error-riddled article as an excuse for an editorial calling for vague reforms (that is, benefit cuts) to these vital, but inadequately modest Social Security benefits. Their justification? The following non-sequitur: “[T]he nation’s long-term economic potential depends on making sure work pays for all those willing to work.” Willingness is irrelevant in the case of disability: As explained below, workers can only receive Social Security disability benefits if they are found to be incapable of working in any sustained way.
And Mulvaney, in his quest to cut Social Security, is repeating the zombie lie that Social Security’s disability insurance protection “is one of the fastest growing programs that we have. It’s become effectively a long-term unemployment, permanent unemployment program.” Yet Social Security’s disability insurance is not growing. And again, unemployment is beside the point. Benefits are granted only to those who are found to be incapable of working enough to support themselves.
These attacks on Social Security are not new. Targeting Social Security’s disability protections is a long-favored tactic of opponents of Social Security who seek to employ a divide-and-conquer strategy: They use myths and misinformation about Social Security’s disability protection — which is not a separate program, but an inextricable component of Social Security’s wage insurance — to seek to pit retired workers against workers with disabilities and create divisions that distract the American people from their real goal of dismantling Social Security altogether. These myths include false claims that working families’ earned disability protection is draining money from retirees; that it is rife with fraud; and (as the Post and Mulvaney both recently claimed), that it is simply an unemployment program for Americans who could actually work, but are lazy freeloaders.
All of these incendiary claims are flat-out false. All of Social Security’s earned benefits are intertwined and interconnected. Indeed, there are people with disabilities receiving retirement and survivor benefits; likewise, there are disabled workers’ nondisabled children receiving disability benefits. Like all of Social Security, its disability insurance is extremely well-managed, with much lower administrative costs and much lower incidence of fraud than is found in counterpart private-sector insurance.
Contrary to the slanderous charge that Mulvaney and the Washington Post have recently made, Social Security’s disability insurance is not some sort of unemployment program that provides relief to those who could actually work, but choose to receive subsistence-level disability benefits instead. In fact, the United States has some of the strictest eligibility standards for receiving disability benefits in the developed world: Applicants must prove not only that they have a severe disability that is likely to last at least a year or end in death, but also that their disability leaves them unable to perform, in any sustained way, any job available — regardless of such factors as the actual availability of these jobs in their communities or whether employers will even hire workers with disabilities.
Moreover, the process for receiving Social Security’s earned disability insurance benefits is long and arduous, with exacting requirements of submissions of medical and other information, multiple checks and months-long delays. Workers with disabilities, who, by definition, are incapable of supporting themselves from paid work have very little financial security as they navigate the long and difficult process. Indeed, their conditions often worsen by the end of the process. Moreover, only four out of every ten applications for disability insurance benefits are ultimately approved. Some applicants die; others are unable to satisfy the very stringent criteria. Indeed, many of those not approved nevertheless never work again, because their disabilities are so severe.
It is outrageous for the Trump administration and the Washington Post to imply that so many of our fellow Americans are lazy con artists who merely seek to escape work ― and for such limited reward. Given that the average annual benefit for a worker with a disability is just over $14,000, it is difficult to imagine, as Mulvaney and the Post have claimed, that those with disabilities who could actually work would choose to go through such an arduous process in the hopes of obtaining a benefit not much above the poverty line.
Nor are the numbers of Social Security disability insurance beneficiaries growing, much less at a shocking or unsustainable rate, as Mulvaney and the Post have wrongly claimed. Indeed, the recent growth in disability insurance beneficiaries, which has now begun to reverse, has been due to well-known and long-expected demographic factors, including the increase in the number of workers, especially women, who work in paid employment and are thus earning Social Security’s insurance protections, along with a large number of workers aging into their prime disability years, and receiving disability insurance a year longer due to the increase in Social Security’s full retirement age. (Once workers reach full retirement age, they, without even knowing it, automatically stop receiving disability benefits and seamlessly start receiving retirement benefits.)
After adjusting for these factors, the percentage of the working age population receiving disability insurance benefits has increased only modestly, from 3.1 percent in 1980 to 4.5 percent in 2011. Not surprisingly, as many Baby Boomers have aged out of their 50’s and early 60’s ― prime disability years – and into their retirement years, the numbers of those receiving disability insurance benefits has stabilized, as expected, and begun to decline. This is hardly the crisis the Post has sought to depict.
These slanderous claims about Social Security’s disability insurance are not simply an attack on the people who receive benefits, or the way that benefits are administered. Rather, they are an attack on all Americans. Disability can—and does—happen to all of us, regardless of age, gender, race or ethnicity, our level of education, or our wealth. Anyone can be severely and permanently disabled by a drunken driver or a life-threatening illness. Indeed, it is a significant risk. An estimated one in four of today’s 20-year-olds will experience a severe and work-ending disability before reaching full retirement age. And because few working-age Americans have access to employer-sponsored disability insurance, Social Security will be the most important, and often the only, source of protection for most of us against lost wages in the event of disability.
There are, to be sure, real challenges that policymakers should address— by increasing the amount of its dedicated revenue Social Security is allowed to spend on administration. First, because the Social Security Administration (SSA) has experienced significant cuts to its budget over the past six years, funding and staffing for determinations of disability have declined. As a result, the backlog of Americans awaiting a final decision on their eligibility has swelled to over 1.1 million, with an average waiting time of 19 months for a final decision. Moreover, Congress has increasingly directed more of SSA’s limited budget to target virtually nonexistent disability fraud, meaning that the agency is forced to wastefully spend money and resources that could be better spent handling disability applications and ensuring that workers aren’t forced to wait months on end in order to receive a final decision.
At base, when it comes to disability, the problem isn’t that too many people are receiving benefits, or that eligibility criteria are too lax, or, as the Post and Mulvaney have tried to claim, that benefits are disincentivizing people with disabilities from working. The problem is that benefits are too low. They should be expanded.
The truth is that policymakers and the media who oppose Social Security are willing to sow myths and misinformation about disability in order to cut protections that benefit all of us, and that we have earned. In contrast, the American people understand that all of Social Security’s protections, including its disability protections, are earned, and are vital to the wellbeing of all Americans. In the event of a severe and work-ending disability, Social Security will be the most important protection against lost wages that the vast majority of Americans can count on. Instead of proposing vague reforms and outright cuts to Social Security’s disability insurance, policymakers should listen to the American people and expand all of Social Security’s protections.