No, Conservatives, People Aren’t Gaming the Disability Benefits System



Recently, the buzz among right wingers is that people are abusing disability benefits. They claim that people are gaming the system, shirking work, and qualifying for benefits without having a legitimate disability. Their complaints are based on the overall increase in the number of recipients over the past decade. News outlets ranging from the esteemed NPR to the worthless FOX “news” channel have been calling the increases in people qualifying for disability benefits “startling” and “astonishing.” The fact that NPR was sucked into the analysis-free zone is disappointing. In response to the story they carried about disability benefits, eight former commissioners of the Social Security Administration penned an open letter criticizing the sensationalism NPR had engaged in. They pointed out that actuaries have long been predicting the increase in people receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) as a function of demographic shifts.

The huge generation of baby boomers has moved into the ages most highly associated with disability. People who are 50 years old are nearly twice as likely to be disabled as those who are 40, and people who are 60 are twice as likely to be disabled as those who are 50 [1]. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities also attributes the growth in recipients of disability benefits to the substantial increase of women in the workforce and the increase in the eligibility age for Social Security from 65 to 66 [2]. In previous decades, women did not accumulate the number of years of work necessary to quality for SSDI. This is no longer true. As for the increase in the retirement age, that one year change from 65 to 66 created a pool of so many people on disability that they represent 5% of recipients. Once these individuals turn 65, they will be transferred over to Social Security retirement benefits.

Another consideration is the economic conditions the country has faced for the past five years. When employment is readily available, people with disabilities can locate work more easily. However, when the economy goes into recession, jobs are harder to come by, and people with disabilities are not as likely to be hired as their counterparts without disabilities [3]. They are also likely to be the first fired.

Conservatives also try to argue that children are receiving SSI at alarming and growing rates. The reality is that the growth in SSI for children has been measured with a gradual increase over the past decade [4]. Over this same time period, the rise in children diagnosed with neurodevelopmental or mental disabilities, such as autism, has been significant and most of the increase has been seen among wealthier families [5]. According to Serena Gordon,

“Families with incomes 300 percent above the federal poverty level — around $66,000 for a family of four — had a 28 percent increase in children with disabilities. Families whose income levels exceeded the poverty level by 400 percent — about $88,000 — saw a 24 percent increase in the number of children with disabilities.” [6]

Fortunately, the rates of physical disability among children have fallen over the past decade, but mental disability among children has seen increases of as much as 16%. If there were a financial motive for obtaining a diagnosis for one’s child, one would expect the increases in rates of disability to rise among low-income individuals, because upper income people do not qualify for SSI. Children in poverty still have the highest rates of disability, yet, there has been little increase in the diagnosis of disability among poor children over the past 10 years. The upturn in children with disabilities qualifying for SSI can be attributed to the recession. This is because more families have slipped into poverty, making them eligible to receive the benefit.

With the growth in the number of adults and children receiving disability benefits, there has been the conservative claim that people who are not really disabled are receiving benefits. For example, Shannon Bream, a Fox “News” talking head grumbled that 8.8 million people were scamming the system by receiving benefits despite not being disabled. It just so happens that 8.8 million is the total number of Americans receiving SSDI. In other words, Ms. Bream is telling the Fox audience that every single person on SSDI is not disabled, representing a 100% fraud rate. Her words were echoed by Megyn Kelly who insisted that there is substantial fraud in the SSDI and SSI programs, despite the fact that the General Accounting Office (GAO) found no evidence of significant fraud [7]. She showed additional ignorance by endorsing the idea that people with physical disabilities were legitimately receiving benefits, but people with mental health disabilities, such as major depression, were essentially lazy and trying to use excuses not to work.

But even more mainstream voices like Joe Klein of Time magazine claim that too many people who could be working are receiving disability benefits instead. He wants to put everyone who claims to have a disability into public service jobs, because he feels more people can work than the system recognizes. His estimation that it is too easy to get SSDI or SSI is way off base. And he is not alone. Fox’s Steve Doocy is spreading the misinformation that it is “relatively easy” to get disability payments. Charles Lane of the Washington Post echoed these sentiments by saying the benefits were too easy to get and payments were too high. Anyone who works with people attempting to get disability benefits knows that the process often takes years, and applicants have to file multiple appeals before finally being accepted into the program [8]. Today, 1 in 5 Americans or 56.7 million people have a disability, but only 14 million receive SSDI or SSI. The Social Security Administration rejects the applications of 53% of those seeking SSDI benefits, including those who file multiple appeals [9]. Only an average of 28% of applicants is accepted into the SSDI program the first time they apply with a rejection rate of 61%. The numbers are similar for SSI with a rejection rate of 54%. Showing their degree of ill health, people on SSDI or SSI are more than three times as likely to die as the rest of the population without disabilities.

There are certainly other myths perpetuated by the right wing including that SSI doesn’t really help children with disabilities or that other countries have set up better disability benefit systems than our own. The truth is that the number of people receiving disability benefits is precisely what one would expect given the country’s age demographics, poverty level, and employment rate. There is very little fraud in the program. People receive relatively meager benefits, and the process for getting these benefits is actually quite arduous. But, conservatives won’t let a few facts get in the way of their narrative.

H/T Media Matters

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