My last blog here was about all the controversy swirling around a recent wrong-headed and misleading NPR/”This American Life” story called “Unfit To Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America.” Deftly sidestepping the simple statistical reasons why disability insurance rolls have been increasing – the rapid aging of America, the continued presence of physically demanding jobs, despite the “information revolution,” and a crappy economy – this story highlighted the non-disabled now accessing the program – laid-off workers, poor people looking for any kind of handout, and scam artists, all those people with fake back injuries sucking the system dry. The clear if unstated conclusion: massive fraud. The article was a classic example of selective-anecdote journalism. Like they did back in the 1980’s, find one welfare queen driving an El Dorado and the whole welfare system is a corrupt giveaway program.
The best response to this kind of egregious myth-making that I’ve read came in a column by Los Angeles Times writer Michael Hiltzik in the April 2 edition of the paper. I encourage everyone who cares about this issue to read the entire article. It is precise, factual, and clear-headed. Mr. Hiltzik mixes hard data with profiles of real recipients of SSDI to blow away the idea of a vast conspiracy of lazy moochers who are living off of your tax dollar. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, here are a couple of high points:
1. The SSDI program is in real financial trouble. To quote the column, “there’s almost no doubt that the disability program’s trust fund will run out in 2016, three years from now. At that point, absent congressional action, disability payments will have to be cut by about 20%.”
2. The myth of the “undeserving disabled” takes many forms. The NPR report, without substantiation, described disability programs as “hidden” substitutes for welfare. Others claim that poor parents coach their kids to act crazy or take ADHD drugs to qualify. Then there are the outright scammers, mostly media inventions like uber-slacker “The Dude” in “The Big Lebowski” or Frank Gallagher in “Shameless.” Do any of these people actually exist? Probably. Is it easy to scam the DI system? Absolutely not. In fact, says Hiltzik, “all in all, 41% of applicants end up with checks. Sound easy to you?”
3. Finally, as Hiltzik draws from another source, “antipathy to the (DI) program goes in cycles. After an expansion during the Carter administration (in the 70’s), there was a big cutback in the 1980’s under Reagan, which led in turn to a liberalization of the standards in the 1990’s.” Now, with the program in trouble, the backlash is back.
I read this piece, and many others like it, and can’t help but think that this whole discussion has little or nothing to do with real people with real disabilities who turn to the government for help. It’s all about ideological agendas, political point-scoring, and the easy use of scapegoats to arouse the crowds and get re-elected. It encourages the worst kind of cynicism toward government, i.e., “they’re all a bunch of crooks.”
Unfortunately, people’s lives are at stake. It’s no time to let the mythmakers and mud slingers win.
(The LA Times article by Michael Hiltzik, entitled “Does Congress have the heart to avert disability crisis?” can be found at this link: http://soa.li/EwNpQuD. It’s a great read.)