National disability organizations have criticized a misleading CBS News 60 Minutes report on Social Security disability which relied on anecdotal evidence to deceptively portray the vital program as wasteful and unsustainable, despite the fact that award rates fell during the recession and that fraud is less than one percent of the program.
On October 6, 60 Minutes stoked fears that the Social Security Disability Insurance program is “ravaged by waste and fraud,” relying on Senator Tom Coburn's (R-OK) bipartisan* investigation and anecdotal evidence to hype growth in the program while misleadingly claiming that it “could become the first government benefits program to run out of money.”
In response, organizations that advocate for and support people with disabilities nationwide have criticized the report. Rebecca Vallas, co-chair of the Social Security Task Force at the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities -- a coalition of approximately 100 national disability organizations -- told Media Matters the coverage was “sensational” and did a “tremendous disservice” to people with disabilities:
The recent 60 Minutes broadcast is just the latest in an array of sensational and misleading media reports that have perpetuated myths and stereotypes about the Social Security disability programs and the people they help. These media reports do a tremendous disservice to viewers as well as to people with disabilities. Any misuse of these vital programs is unacceptable; however it is unfortunate and disappointing when media reports mislead their viewers by painting entire programs with the brush of one or a few bad apples, without putting them in the context of the millions of individuals who receive benefits appropriately, and for whom they are a vital lifeline -- as well as the many disability advocates around the country who work hard to protect the rights of individuals with significant disabilities and serious illnesses who have been wrongly denied Social Security disability benefits.
Lisa Ekman, Director of Federal Policy at Health & Disability Advocates, said the organization was “extremely disappointed that 60 Minutes chose to air such a one-sided story based on anecdote and supposition ... Misleading media reports like the one on 60 Minutes distract from focusing on the real issue of helping American workers with and without disabilities achieve economic security.”
The myths pushed by 60 Minutes have been repeatedly debunked by experts. The report admitted that the vast majority of people applying for benefits are denied, but ignored the fact that the majority of appeals are also denied, and that award rates have actually fallen during the economic recession. In April, the Wall Street Journal called the claim that federal disability benefits were to blame for people leaving the labor force “exaggerated,” explaining that disability was in fact the least common reason individuals left the workforce.
As the Center for Economic and Policy Research's Dean Baker noted, the report also “completely ignored all the comments from experts in the field ... pointing out that fraud is in fact not rampant in the disability program.” Indeed, the Government Accountability Office has repeatedly found that fraud accounts for approximately one percent of all disability payments.
Furthermore, the recent growth in the program was expected due to shifts in demographics -- as the Social Security Administration explained to 60 Minutes -- and the trust fund which pays for disability benefits is not in crisis. Congress periodically reallocates funds to support the program, and can easily do so again.
Prior to the airing of the 60 Minutes segment, 23 national disability organizations, including the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities and Health & Disability Advocates, wrote to 60 Minutes' executive editor Bill Owens warning about the dangers that inaccurate media portrayals which push these very myths can pose to people with disabilities (emphasis added):
An array of recent media coverage of the Social Security disability programs ... has painted a misleading and sharply inaccurate picture of these important programs, which serve as a vital lifeline for millions of Americans with significant disabilities and illnesses. In so doing, [media have] done a tremendous disservice to readers, listeners and viewers, as well as to people with disabilities.
Media coverage has real consequences. Policy by anecdote has in the past led to significant and needless harm to Social Security disability beneficiaries. The wellbeing and economic security of millions of people with disabilities and their families - for whom Social Security disability benefits are nothing short of a lifeline - hang in the balance.
The misleading CBS investigation follows a discredited report from public radio program This American Life and NPR's All Things Considered which similarly leaned on anecdotal evidence to make sweeping generalizations and stoke fears about federal disability benefits. More than 100 organizations that advocate for and support people with disabilities signed a letter criticizing the piece, saying it “paints a misleading and inaccurate picture of the Social Security programs,” and eight former Social Security commissioners wrote an open letter denouncing the NPR piece. NPR was forced to clarify the report following the widespread criticism.
*UPDATE: This blog has been updated to note that the investigation into federal disability benefits is bipartisan, carried out by investigators for Sen. Coburn (R-OK) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Media Matters regrets the error.