Cable and television news outlets have overwhelmingly presented Social Security as a program that should be cut, giving little to no airtime for proposals that would instead strengthen the program for beneficiaries.
Media Matters research revealed significant media selection bias in the Social Security debate. Through the first six months of 2013, the three largest broadcast and cable news networks dedicated nearly 300 segments to discussions of Social Security. More than two-thirds of those segments framed the entire Social Security debate as a problem of long-term solvency and the national debt, which can only be solved through drastic cuts to beneficiaries.
Media's heavy focus on "fixing" the solvency of the program belies the fact that Social Security is funded for at least the next two decades.
On May 31, the Social Security Board of Trustees submitted its annual report to members of Congress and the White House, which concluded that Social Security "does not face an immediate crisis," as noted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' summary of the report. The report recommends that lawmakers prudently address long-term solvency concerns, but need not immediately adopt deep benefit cuts.
The Economic Policy Institute argued, contrary to most news coverage, that the challenges facing Social Security are "modest and manageable." Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman had a similar reaction to the latest Social Security report, noting "the system will be able to pay most of its scheduled benefits as far as the eye can see." Krugman also recognized the irrationality of arguments made by those who claim to want to save Social Security from eventual collapse:
The risk is that we might, at some point in the future, have to cut benefits; to avoid this risk of future benefit cuts, we are supposed to act pre-emptively by...cutting future benefits. What problem, exactly, are we solving here?
While media coverage of Social Security paints the debate of the program as one-sided, members of Congress have put forth plans that would expand the program through need-based benefit increases and tax reform.
The most prominent Social Security expansion proposal involves raising the payroll tax cap from its current $113,700 annual limit. The payroll tax is the primary source of revenue for Social Security. A report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research revealed that placing a cap on taxable income causes low wage workers to pay higher effective rates than high wage workers. Eliminating the payroll tax cap would more evenly distribute payroll taxes to all workers while extending the life of the Social Security trust fund indefinitely.
In January 2013, the National Academy of Social Insurance conducted a comprehensive survey of American attitudes toward various Social Security reform proposals. The data revealed overwhelming support for lifting or raising the payroll tax cap, while respondents reported significant opposition to benefit cuts, including raising the retirement age and decreasing cost of living adjustments through chained CPI.
The Center for American Progress has also argued in favor of expanding Social Security through tax reform and increasing outlays to those beneficiaries who most rely on the program.
News segments devoted to the alleged demise of Social Security and other benefit programs consistently overlook these alternative proposals aimed at strengthening -- rather than cutting -- the program for beneficiaries.
Throughout the first half of 2013, broadcast and cable nightly news overwhelmingly discussed Social Security in an unbalanced and negative light by repeatedly insisting that the program is insolvent, must be cut, or poses a risk to long-term fiscal security.
Right-wing media misleadingly hyped a congressional hearing to falsely claim that disability fraud is leading to increased claims and depleting the Social Security Disability Trust Fund. However, testimony from a Social Security Administration official at the hearing revealed that fraud is not a major problem in the disability program and demographic changes explain increased disability claims.
From the June 26 edition of Fox Business' Varney & Company:
The Las Vegas Review-Journal hyped the need for entitlement reform, calling for an increase in eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare, means-testing or tying benefits to a beneficiary's income, and competition for Medicare. However, the Review-Journal neglected to mention that health care cost growth has been slowing down and that enacting these policy prescriptions would hurt seniors and low-income Americans.
A Wall Street Journal article debunked the myth that federal disability benefits are to blame for the shrinking labor force, "exaggerated" claims that have previously been pushed by the paper itself.
An April 29 Journal article headlined "Real Culprit Behind Smaller Workforce: Age" explained that the recent decrease in the labor force -- the number of employed and unemployed Americans who are currently seeking work -- "has more to do with retiring baby boomers than frustrated job seekers abandoning their searches." The article noted that claims that Americans are voluntarily leaving the workforce to receive Disability Insurance instead of working, for example, "may be exaggerated," and explained that retirees and students made up a far more significant portion of those leaving the labor force. The article included the following graph, showing disability was the least common reason for individuals leaving the workforce in March 2013:
However, the Journal has previously pushed the myth that Disability Insurance accounted for much of the dropping labor force participation rate. An April 10 article headlined "Workers Stuck in Disability Stunt Economic Recovery" claimed that workers receiving disability benefits were costing the economy billions by not instead participating in the labor force, and quoted economist Michael Feroli's claim that "worker flight to the Social Security Disability Insurance program accounts for as much as a quarter of the puzzling drop in participation rates, a labor exodus with far-reaching economic consequences." These claims are in direct contradiction to the Journal's most recent reporting.
According to Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Dean Baker, research shows if more individuals who receive disability benefits worked, it would have a relatively minor effect on employment figures. Harold Pollack, an expert on disability policy at the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration, dismissed the idea that disability benefits might be "luring away people who could work." Despite these facts, media continue to attack federal disability benefits by pushing the false claim that disability programs harm the economy.
Media outlets including NPR and Fox News are targeting federal disability benefits programs through a campaign deceptively portraying these programs as wasteful and unsustainable. In reality, these programs have low fraud rates and help the rising number of Americans with severe disabilities survive when they are unable to work.
Fox News inflated the threat of fraud in the Utah disability benefits program, stoking fears that fraud is rampant even though it amounts to less than 1 percent of the entire benefits program in the state.
On April 10, the Social Security Administration announced that Utah's attorney general and the Social Security inspector general's office identified 368 cases of alleged fraud in the state, and 157 of the people accused of fraud were denied their Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefit claims as a result.
Fox & Friends trumpeted this finding on April 11, with co-host Gretchen Carlson saying that "you've got to wonder if every state did this and had somebody look into the alleged fraud that's going on in our social security disability system, that there would be a lot of money to come up that might be helpful when we're discussing the budget." Fox displayed the following graphic during the segment:
On April 11, Fox Nation similarly stoked the fear of SSDI fraud based on the findings of the Utah attorney general and the Social Security inspector general's office:
In fact the Utah attorney general's finding proved that fraud is not a major problem with SSDI in Utah. According to the latest available data, there are 48,777 SSDI recipients in Utah. 157 cases of fraud only amounts to only .3 percent of all recipients.
Indeed the Utah attorney general's finding that there are only a few cases of SSDI fraud in Utah confirmed that fraud in SSDI is a very small problem. A March 2012 Government Accountability Office report found that the improper payments from the Social Security Administration program that includes disability insurance totaled 0.6 percent in fiscal year 2011.
The Washington Post quoted the research director of the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) arguing that immigrants are a drain on public services without noting that the center's analysis on the issue has been criticized as flawed. A study by the libertarian Cato Institute found that immigrants are actually less likely to rely on public benefits than native-born Americans.
In an article examining the effect immigrants have on Social Security, the Post noted that many undocumented immigrants file tax returns and thus pay into the Social Security trust fund, even though they may never be able to access it themselves because they are legally unable to do so. As a counterpoint, the article then included the views of CIS' Steven Camarota:
But Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports limits on immigration, said that America's immigrants are not young or fecund enough to shore up the system.
"If the immigrants all came at 20 and had seven or eight kids, you would see more of a difference," he said. The average immigrant arrives at age 30, and immigrant women have, on average, 2.1 children, according to the Pew Research Center.
Camarota added that immigrants tend to be poorer than native-born Americans and are therefore more reliant on a wide range of public services. "If you bring in a lot of immigrants who are paying into Social Security but then need all these other social programs -- well, then you're not helping the situation."
Analysts on both sides agree that increasing the number of highly skilled immigrants would shore up the system more than the Social Security Administration report accounts for, since high-skilled immigrants pay more taxes and spend more than low-skilled ones.
However, in a study released in February, the Cato Institute found that immigrants are less likely than native-born Americans to use public services:
[L]ow-income non-citizen immigrants, including adults and children, are generally less likely to receive public benefits than those who are native-born. Moreover, when non-citizen immigrants receive benefits, the value of benefits they receive is usually lower than the value of benefits received by those born in the United States. The combination of lower average utilization and smaller average benefits indicates that the overall cost of public benefits is substantially less for low-income non-citizen immigrants than for comparable native-born adults and children.
Cato also noted that while immigrants' earnings tend to be lower than Americans' when beginning their careers, that changes over time as they invest more in education and training: "[W]hile immigrants begin with lower earnings, their incomes improve as they remain in the United States for longer periods. As immigrants remain longer in the United States, their English proficiency and other job skills improve, which heightens their earning potential."
Fox News figures claimed the U.S. should emulate the United Kingdom by slashing funding to federal disability programs and changing eligibility requirements, despite the fact that U.S. eligibility requirements are already stringent, that the new U.K. benefits tests were largely overturned on appeal, and that research shows changes to disability programs in the U.K. will force thousands of individuals with disabilities into poverty.
From the March 30 edition of Fox News' Fox News Watch:
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This American Life host Ira Glass has been called out by the Center for Economic and Policy Research for citing data with "limited relevance to contemporary policy debates" to defend his misleading report on disability benefits.
Last week, Media Matters detailed how the report, which was also featured on the NPR programs Planet Money and All Things Considered, pushed a series of myths about Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) -- a Social Security program that supports families that include children with disabilities -- over the program's growth rate, qualification challenges, and successes it has had in reducing poverty among children with disabilities. The report was quickly picked up by right-wing media outlets who used it to advance the false claim that increased disability benefits indicate fraud in the system.
Following harsh criticism that the report presented a false picture of disability programs Glass stood by the story, saying in a statement to the International Business Times that "our report on disability programs was fact checked line by line by an outside fact checker, in addition to fact checking by the reporter and her editors" and "[w]e know of no factual errors. We stand by the story."
Now, CEPR Senior Research Associate Shawn Fremstad has taken issue with Glass' defense of the report, writing that Glass is trying to defend his initial report by telling a story about SSI that has "limited relevance to contemporary policy debates":
Finally, Glass takes issue with an analysis that I did with Rebecca Vallas, one cited by Media Matters, showing that the recent rise in the number of children with severe disabilities receiving Supplemental Security benefits is largely due to economic factors. Glass says: "They [Media Matters] choose data from 2000-2009 to back up that claim.... As we point out in our reporting, when you look at a longer period of time -- at 30 years of economic data -- you see a different story."
But neither Glass nor Joffe-Walt say what that "different story" actually is. Vallas and I have focused -- for example in this paper for the National Academy of Social Insurance -- on the trends over roughly the last 15 years because Supplemental Security's eligibility standards for children have been stable since then (the figure below is from this paper). Before that SSA's eligibility standards for children were expanded (in 1990 by a conservative Supreme Court that ruled 7-2 that SSA's regulations were much stricter than the underlying federal law) and then pared back somewhat (by Congress in 1996 after the Gingrich Revolution). In telling the story of Supplemental Security today, the primary focus should be on trends from recent history that represent a mature, stable program. If reporters want to also tell the story of the implementation and early history of children's SSI, that's fine, but they should be clear it is a much different story that has limited relevance to contemporary policy debates. They should also go back and read this 1995 Forbes Media Critic piece, "Media Crusade Gone Haywire," detailing the role that dubious sources and anecdotes fed the last major round of media hysteria on this issue.
A misleading NPR report has become fodder for a right-wing media campaign to scapegoat federal disability benefits, despite the fact that the rise in disability claims can be attributed to the economic recession and demographic shifts, and that instances of fraud are minimal.
NPR reported that the rise in the number of federal disability beneficiaries was "startling" and claimed it was explained by unemployed workers with "squishy" claims of disability choosing to receive federal benefits rather than work. Right-wing media called the report "brilliant," and used it to further the myth that the increase in the number of individuals receiving disability benefits reveals fraud in the system.
Breitbart.com's Wynton Hall wrote that NPR's "eye-opening" piece uncovered a disability program "fraught with fraud." Fox Nation promoted the piece with the headline, "Every Month, 14 Million People Get a Disability Check from the Government..." The National Review Online's blog called the piece "brilliant," while the Washington Examiner's editorial offered it as evidence that disability benefits provide "a voluntary life sentence to idle poverty." The Drudge Report linked to the NPR story and to the Breitbart.com article:
But as Media Matters previously noted, these reports failed to include crucial facts that explain the rise in disability benefits. The recent financial crisis and the rising rate of child poverty have made more children eligible to receive benefits through the Supplemental Security program, while the growth in the number of adults receiving benefits through Social Security Disability Insurance since the 1970s is largely explained by increases in the number of women qualifying for benefits. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained, as women have joined the workforce in greater numbers over the past few decades, more women are eligible for disability benefits, resulting in higher numbers of beneficiaries.
Furthermore, in a report published in March 2012, the Government Accountability Office found that improper payments of disability benefits are not a widespread problem, and accounted for less than four percent of total improper payments made by federal agencies in fiscal year 2011.
The Washington Post wrote editorials mentioning policies that would cut Social Security benefits more than editorials mentioning Social Security revenue increases by nearly six to one, according to a Nexis search of Post editorials since late 2010. This analysis was performed as Social Security becomes a major topic in the upcoming budget negotiations.
Fox News guest host Shannon Bream pushed the absurd notion that the fraud rate in federal disability benefits is 100 percent, claiming that 8.8 million people in the United States are collecting disability benefits "under false pretenses." In fact, 8.8 million is the total number of workers who received Social Security Disability Benefits in 2012.
Previewing an America Live segment on disability benefits fraud, Bream claimed, "There are reportedly 8.8 million people in the U.S. collecting disability benefits under false pretenses."
In fact, the total number of workers who received disability benefits in 2012 was 8.8 million. Claiming that 8.8 million people fraudulently received disability benefits is tantamount to claiming that every disability payment to a worker in 2012 was fraudulent.
In a report published in March 2012, the Government Accountability Office found that improper payments of disability benefits are not a widespread problem. GAO noted that "[f]ederal agencies reported improper payment estimates totaling $115.3 billion in fiscal year 2011, a decrease of $5.3 billion from the revised prior year reported estimate of $120.6 billion. Based on the agencies' estimates, OMB estimated that improper payments comprised about 4.7 percent of the $2.5 trillion in fiscal year 2011 total spending for the agencies' related programs." Of that $115.3 billion, Medicaid payments accounted for $21.9 billion, Supplemental Security Income payments accounted for $4.6 billion, and Disability Insurance payments accounted for $4.5 billion.
Moreover, eligibility criteria for disability benefits are stringent, and more than half of all disability claims are denied. According to data from the Social Security Administration, only 34.8 percent of applicants were successfully awarded disability benefits in 2010, down from 56.1 percent a decade earlier.