WASHINGTON ― Disability rights advocates and a leading Democratic think tank are livid at The Washington Post over a March 30 front-page story on the prevalence of disability benefits in rural America.
The newspaper claimed that “as many as one-third of working-age adults” in rural communities receive disability benefits. But as the Center for American Progress calculated ― and The Huffington Post confirmed by looking at the raw data ― that proportion holds true in only one county in the entire country.
Republicans often use stories like the Post’s to argue that the disability rolls have grown due to abuse from people who can work but simply do not want to. For example, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) complained in January 2015 that people were “gaming the system” to receive disability benefits. In fact, the Social Security Administration’s inspector general has estimated that the Social Security Disability Insurance program has a fraud rate below 1 percent.
“They are perpetuating the same myths that have been debunked over and over again without regard for how misleading reporting can affect people with disabilities already living on the financial edge,” said Rebecca Vallas, managing director of the Center for American Progress’ Poverty to Prosperity program.
The Post issued a correction about a narrow aspect of the story on Monday, downsizing its count of “highest participation” counties, but it did not revise its estimate of the prevalence of disability benefits in rural areas. It also did not respond to multiple requests to clarify outstanding questions about ways in which its framing of disability programs lacks context about the factors truly driving growth in the program, raising the possibility of political attacks on benefits and their recipients.
“They are perpetuating the same myths that have been debunked over and over again without regard for how misleading reporting can affect people with disabilities already living on the financial edge.”
The Washington Post’s article, “Disabled or Just Desperate? Rural Americans Turn to Disability as Jobs Dry Up,” tells the story of Desmond Spencer, 39, an out-of-work roofer with a bad knee, as he considers applying for SSDI.
It is a vivid, empathic tale of one man’s struggle to maintain his dignity and care for his family members as they grapple with serious health problems and economic deprivation in job-scarce rural Alabama.
Where the Post gets it wrong, according to CAP, is in its use of Spencer’s experience to suggest that excessive reliance on disability benefits is a virtual epidemic in some predominantly white, rural areas.
Using the Post’s data, CAP took apart the Post’s boldest assertion: that “as many as one-third” of working-age adults in rural communities receive disability benefits.
Out of more than 3,100 counties in the U.S., only McDowell County, West Virginia ― one of the most impoverished counties in the country ― comes close to one-third participation, with 32.2 percent of residents receiving either SSDI or SSI benefits. The actual average is only 9.1 percent of working-age adults in rural counties receive benefits from one of those two programs, according to CAP’s analysis of the data sets the Post used.
“There’s a word for using data this way: cherry-picking,” Rebecca Vallas, Rachel West and Katherine Gallagher-Robbins of CAP’s Poverty to Prosperity program wrote in the analysis they published Tuesday.
Even if the Post’s characterization had been accurate, though, disability rights advocates and liberal scholars would have taken issue with the fundamental premise of the story.
The Post presents Spencer as an example of the millions of Americans who have begun receiving disability benefits “over the past two decades as the number of people on disability has surged.”
Scholars do not dispute that disability rolls have increased. But when it comes to SSDI in particular, demographic factors, such as the aging of the baby boom generation and the rise in working women now eligible for benefits, can explain the vast majority of the increase in enrollment, noted Kathleen Romig, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who wrote her own critique of the Post story on March 31.
And as Social Security’s full retirement age nears 67, it means more workers who would have transitioned into the retirement program at 65 have stayed on disability.
“This is not a new phenomenon, and it is a totally expected phenomenon,” Romig said.
“The article leaves readers with the impression that the application process is as basic as picking up the phone and making a phone call.”
Higher percentages of people with disabilities in rural counties, like the one where Spencer lives, she added, can be explained by the aging population and the higher concentration of blue-collar workers, who are more likely to work in physically debilitating jobs or lack access to adequate health care.
The demographic-driven growth in the number of SSDI beneficiaries actually peaked in 2013 and has been declining steadily as baby boomers begin to draw Social Security.
“Those trends have played themselves out, and we are in a different era now, but the media narrative has not caught up,” Romig said.
The Post concedes as much, noting that the increase in benefits in rural parts of the country was “partly driven by demographic changes that are now slowing as disabled baby-boomers age into retirement.”
But critics believe that an article whose entire assumption is that information about national trends can be gleaned from one person’s experience by its very nature under-emphasizes those demographic changes.
“There are a lot of reasons why rural America has higher rates of disability, but the Post chose to only chase the check,” said Vallas, former deputy director of government affairs for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, an association of disability claims attorneys.
It is not even clear whether Spencer will apply for benefits. At the end of the Post’s article, Spencer called the Social Security Administration to set up a meeting to discuss how to apply for benefits.
“The article leaves readers with the impression that the application process is as basic as picking up the phone and making a phone call,” said T.J. Sutcliffe, director of income and housing policy for The ARC, one of the country’s leading disability rights groups. “What we know is that the Social Security disability standard is one of the most stringent standards in the industrialized world. It is actually very difficult to qualify for disability.”
The government awarded SSDI benefits to less than one-third (32 percent) of workers who applied in 2016. If the application is rejected on the first round ― and the vast majority are ― receiving benefits on appeal can often take over a year and a half. The average benefit for those workers who ultimately qualify is $1,171 a month.
Congressional Republicans declined to significantly change SSDI when transferring revenue from the retirement fund to plug an imminent shortfall in November 2015.
But that does not keep activists from worrying about the ammunition that stories like the one in the Post could give Republicans now that they control the White House and Congress.
That’s particularly true since Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, a former member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, stood by his belief that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme” in his confirmation hearing, and he hopes to convince Trump of the wisdom of scaling back social insurance programs.
In an interview with CNBC last week, Mulvaney declined to rule out cutting SSDI this year, claiming “it’s become effectively a long-term unemployment, permanent unemployment program.”
“This kind of story,” Vallas said, “risks providing cover to Mick Mulvaney and congressional Republicans who have been looking for a way to cut Social Security for years. It has tremendously high stakes, particularly given the political climate we are in right now.”
Disability rights advocates like Sutcliffe and Vallas have been critical of what they see as reputable national outlets approaching the subject of SSDI ham-handedly in the past.
An in-depth “This American Life” story in 2012 also claimed that the growth in SSDI and SSI rolls was the result of greater dependency without acknowledging the demographic factors, such as an aging population, contributing to rises in enrollment. “This American Life” drew similarly detailed critiques from policy analysts.
Likewise, an October 2013 “60 Minutes” investigation sounding the alarms about SSDI’s rising costs drew widespread criticism for relying on anecdotes of alleged abuse to characterize a national trend.
“We’ve seen this before,” Sutcliffe said. “Any time there is reporting, particularly at the national level, that leads the public to have an incomplete or inaccurate view of the disability programs, ... it runs the risks of policymakers getting mis-impressions about the program and considering changes to the program that would make the program less adequate and make it harder for Social Security to fulfill its function.”
The Post will soon have an opportunity to redeem itself in the eyes of critics that see it as yet another reputable news organization exaggerating the challenges facing disability programs. The newspaper made it clear in its article that the March 30 profile and investigation is the first of a series of stories that will explore disability benefits.
“We hope that as the Post continues this series that it will work hard to get the numbers to be as accurate as possible and provide its readers with more context about what those numbers mean, as well as how the program operates and affects people’s lives,” Sutcliffe concluded.