Fox Pushes Disability Benefits Myths

Fox hyped the high number of people receiving federal disability benefit payments to push myths about the program and suggest many recipients are “moochers” and “takers.” In fact, a majority of applicants are denied benefits, and experts agree the higher levels of disability recipients are a direct result of the recession and an increased number of women receiving benefits.

MYTH: It Is “Easy” To Receive Disability Benefits

Steve Doocy: “It's Relatively Easy To Get On The Disability List.” Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy said that the recent increase in disability applicants could “perhaps” be “a sign of a lousy economy,” while claiming “it's relatively easy to get on the disability list, so, you know what, I need to feed my family, this is my last option.” He concluded: “There should definitely be some different standards, better standards” for the screening of applicants. [Fox News, Fox and Friends, 12/6/12]

FACT: “Eligibility Criteria Are Stringent,” And Over Half Of All Disability Claims Are Denied

SSA: “Denied Disability Claims Have Averaged Nearly 53 Percent.” According to the most recent data available 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. Between 2001 and 2010, "[d]enied disability claims have averaged nearly 53 percent." From SSA:

The final award rate for disabled-worker applicants has varied over time, averaging nearly 45 percent for claims filed from 2001 through 2010. The percentage of applicants awarded benefits at the initial claims level averaged 28 percent over the same period and ranged from a high of 37 percent to a low of 26 percent. The percentage of applicants awarded at the reconsideration and hearing levels are averaging 3 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Denied disability claims have averaged nearly 53 percent. [Social Security Administration, July 2012]

CBO: 61 Percent Of Initial Disability Claims Are Denied. According to research estimates from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, 61 percent of disability applicants are denied during the Initial Determination Stage. 27 percent of those applicants then appeal the decision, but only 3 percent of appeals are approved during Reconsideration, the first appeal stage. [Congressional Budget Office, 7/16/12]

GAO: SSA “Denied, On Average, 54 Percent” Of Supplemental Security Income Child Applicants And Recipients With Mental Impairments. According to the Government Accountability Office, "[t]he number of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) child applicants and recipients with mental impairments has increased substantially for more than a decade, even though the Social Security Administration (SSA) denied, on average, 54 percent of such claims from fiscal years 2000 to 2011." [Government Accountability Office, June 2012

CBPP: “Eligibility Criteria Are Stringent.” The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted the eligibility criteria for disability insurance applicants are “stringent.” CBPP further noted that “applicants must show that they suffer from a 'severe, medically determinable physical or mental impairment that is expected to last 12 months or result in death' ” and must endure a significant waiting period:

The law requires that the impairment must already have lasted for at least five months before the applicant can qualify for DI.  Together with the requirement that the impairment must be expected to last another 12 months or result in death, this emphasizes that DI is not a program for the temporarily disabled.  SSI may be available during that period for very poor applicants; sick leave, private insurance, family resources, or savings might tide over others. The waiting period provides an intuitive reason why applications rise during recessions.  In a robust economy, few workers will quit a job to subsist on little or nothing for five months with an uncertain prospect of a DI award; but in a recession, a spell of unemployment can last long enough for a disabled worker to be able to satisfy the waiting-period requirement.


Typical processing times at the DDS level are three to four months, and processing times at the hearing level average about a year. The allowance rate at the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level (also known as the hearing level, generally the second level of appeal) is quite high, which has led to some valid concerns about inconsistency in decisions; yet it is important to remember that ALJs are often seeing claimants whose condition has deteriorated since their application was turned down and whose case file is better documented when it reaches the ALJ (often with the help of an attorney) than it was at the DDS stage. [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 8/9/12]

MYTH: Increase In Disability Benefits Due To “Moochers”

Doocy: “Has The Number Of People On Disability Gone Up Because They Are Moochers?” On Fox & Friends, Doocy asked, “Are more people getting sick and disabled, or are we just wasting more money?” Later, he asked, “Has the number of people on disability gone up because they are moochers, or because more people need help?” [Fox News, Fox and Friends, 12/6/12]

Sykes: “A Lot Of People, I Think, Are Figuring Out That It's Easier To Collect These Checks Than It Is To Go Get A Job.” Guest Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio talk show host, implied on Fox and Friends that disability insurance was being taken advantage of by the “takers in society,” and claimed, “I think that a lot of people are figuring out that it's easier to collect these checks than it is to go get a job, integrate into society, learn what earned success is all about”:

SYKES: This is one of those moments we have to step back and say, OK, do we really want a safety net that is targeted at the genuinely disabled, or are we just creating another program for the takers in society? I mean this thing has ballooned to about a 130 billion dollars a year. There's no indication that it's going to slow down any time soon, and, quite frankly, you know the whole approach of the Americans with Disabilities Act was to integrate the disabled back into society. What this program is doing is essentially saying, no, you don't have to work, we're going to create this permanent alternative, and unfortunately that means that a lot of people, I think, are figuring out that it's easier to collect these checks than it is to go get a job, integrate into society, and learn what earned success is all about." [Fox News, Fox and Friends, 12/6/12]

FACT: Experts Agree That Majority Of Recent Increase In Disability Benefits Is Due To The Recession

CBO: “In The Aftermath Of The Recent Severe Recession, Applications For DI Benefits Reached A Historic High.” According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the increase in the number of applications for disability insurance (DI) was directly linked to the severe recession:

When jobs are plentiful, some people who could qualify for the DI program may choose instead to work. Conversely, when jobs are scarce, such as in economic downturns, some people with disabilities may find that their employment opportunities are especially limited, and they will instead choose to apply for DI benefits. Indeed, in the aftermath of the recent severe recession, applications for DI benefits reached a historic high, exceeding 2.9 million in calendar year 2010.


CBO projects that as a result of the most recent recession and slow recovery, the number of disabled worker beneficiaries will continue to rise over the next few years (although growth will slow as the economy improves). That increase in participation stemming from the severe economic downturn will add to the long-term trend of rising enrollment. [Congressional Budget Office, July 2012]

Senate Permanent Subcommittee On Investigations: "Between October 2008 And June 2010, Job Losses Among Workers With Disabilities Far Exceeded Those Of Workers Without Disabilities." In September, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations submitted a report on the Social Security Disability Programs. The report found that the increase in disability applications was a direct result of the financial crisis, and that “job losses among workers with disabilities far exceeded those of workers without disabilities”:

The stress to the disability system was likely exacerbated when the financial crisis hit in 2008, resulting in a number of individuals losing jobs and, in turn, employer sponsored health insurance benefits. Census data indicated that between October 2008 and June 2010, job losses among workers with disabilities far exceeded those of workers without disabilities. Without health insurance, it is possible that chronic conditions held in check by medicine and treatment worsened and became more difficult to manage or even became disabling. Those workers potentially turned to federal disability insurance. In other cases, workers with disabling conditions who had refrained from applying for disability insurance because they were able to manage their impairments and sustain work, lost those paychecks, and then applied for disability insurance payments. [Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, 9/13/12]

PBS: “During The Recession, Disabled Workers Were Hit Five Times As Hard As Other Workers When It Came To Losing Their Jobs.” PBS NewsHour reported that “during the recession, disabled workers were hit five times as hard as other workers when it came to losing their jobs. People with disabilities have also had more trouble finding new jobs during the recovery.” [PBS NewsHour, 7/26/12]

FACT: Changes In Workforce Explain Most Of The Growth In Disability Benefits

CBO: “Much Of The Recent Growth ... Stems From Increases In The Number Of Women Receiving Disabled Worker Benefits.” The Congressional Budget Office found that much of the growth in the number of people receiving disability benefits since the 1970s stemmed from the increase in the number of women in the program:

Much of the recent growth in the share of the population that comprises disabled workers stems from increases in the number of women receiving disabled worker benefits. Between 1970 and 1995, the percentage of women who received such benefits grew by about 0.6 percentage points -- about the same rate of growth as for men. Between 1995 and 2011, however, women receiving disabled worker benefits increased from 1.0 percent to 2.1 percent of all working-age adults; the corresponding change for men was from 1.6 percent to 2.4 percent. [Congressional Budget Office, July 2012]

CBPP: "Changes In The Workforce Explain Most Of The Growth In The Disability Rolls." According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "[c]hanges in the workforce explain most of the growth in the disability rolls." CBPP explained:

Several important factors have swelled the number of disabled workers substantially during the last few decades:

  • Baby boomers have aged into their high-disability years.  Aging takes a toll on many workers' bodies and minds long before retirement age.  People are roughly twice as likely to be disabled at age 50 as at age 40, and twice as likely to be disabled at age 60 as at age 50.  (See Figure 2.)  As the baby boomers -- the huge cohort of people born between 1946 and 1964 -- have grown older, the number of disability cases has risen substantially.
  • More women have qualified for disability benefits.  In general, workers with severe impairments can get disability benefits only if they have worked for at least one-fourth of their adult life and for five of the last ten years.  Until women joined the workforce in significantly greater numbers in the 1970s and 1980s, relatively few women met those tests; as recently as 1990, male disabled workers outnumbered women by nearly 2 to 1. Now that more women have worked long enough to qualify for disability benefits, the ratio has fallen to 1.1 to 1. This has been a large factor behind the increase in the number of DI beneficiaries.
  • Social Security's full retirement age rose from 65 to 66.  When disabled workers reach full retirement age, they begin receiving Social Security retirement benefits rather than disability benefits.  The increase in the retirement age has delayed that conversion for many workers.  In December 2011, more than 400,000 people between 65 and 66 -- nearly 5 percent of all DI beneficiaries -- collected disabled-worker benefits; under the rules in place a decade ago, they would have been receiving retirement benefits instead.

The report included the following graph:

[Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 8/9/12]

Department Of Labor: “Men With Disabilities Are Almost Twice As Likely To Have Jobs Than Women With Disabilities.” According to the Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, women with disabilities face “specific employment barriers,” are less likely to have jobs than men with disabilities, and are significantly poorer than men with disabilities:

Neither disability policies designed to ensure employment of people with disabilities nor policies aimed at gender equity in employment have recognized the specific employment barriers experienced by women with disabilities. The inequities are significant:

  • Men with disabilities are more likely to be employed and have full-time jobs, and men with disabilities are almost twice as likely to have jobs than women with disabilities;
  • Women with disabilities are also significantly poorer than men with disabilities, due partly to the fact they are more likely to be unemployed, and also that when they do work, they receive considerably lower wages than men with disabilities; and
  • Disability affects women workers in their role as caregivers for family members who have a disability or who are elderly, as the majority of caregivers in the United States are women. [Department of Labor, accessed 12/6/12]

FACT: Unemployment Among The Disabled Is Significantly Higher Than Among The Non-Disabled

Bureau Of Labor Statistics: Unemployment Rate 5.6 Percent Higher Among People With A Disability. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for persons with a disability was 12.9 percent in October 2012, while it was only 7.3 percent for the non-disabled. [Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11/2/12]

Center For American Progress: Employment Rates Among People With Disabilities Have Dropped Significantly Since Late 1980s. The Center for American Progress reported that the employment rate for men with a disability “fell from 28 percent in 1988 to 16 percent in 2008,” and for women with a disability the employment rate fell from 18 percent in 1988 to 15 percent in 2008:

The employment rate of males in their forties and fifties with a self-reported disability fell from 28 percent in 1988 to 16 percent in 2008 (approximately a 40 percent decline). The employment rate of comparably aged males without a disability held roughly constant at 87 to 88 percent. For females in this same age range with disabilities, the employment rate declined slightly (from 18 to 15 percent) while the employment rate of their counterparts without a disability rose from 66 to 76 percent. [Center for American Progress, December 2010]

NY Times: “The Unemployment Rate For Blind Adults Of Working Age Is Nearly 70 Percent.” The New York Times reported that according to Kevin A. Lynch, chief executive of the nonprofit National Industries for the Blind, "[t]he unemployment rate for blind adults of working age is nearly 70 percent -- a number that has been stagnant for 30 years." [The New York Times3/24/12]

FACT: 70 Percent Of People With Disabilities Live In Poverty

NY Times: “Today, 70 Percent Of People With Disabilities Live In Poverty.” A New York Times article headlined “The Disability Trap” highlighted the overwhelming poverty of those who rely on Social Security disability payments, called “Supplemental Security Income” or S.S.I. The article reported that "[t]oday, 70 percent of people with disabilities live in poverty."  [The New York Times10/20/12]

APA: “Persons With Disabilities Are More Likely To Be Unemployed And Live In Poverty.” According to the American Psychological Association, “persons with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed and live in poverty,” despite of the fact that “two-thirds of people with disabilities are of working age and want to work”:

[P]ersons with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed and live in poverty. The American Association of People With Disabilities (AAPD) estimates that two-thirds of people with disabilities are of working age and want to work. The high incidence of poverty among persons with a disability fuels doubts about the sufficiency of public assistance to these individuals.

  • Results from the 2006 American Community Survey (ACS) reveal significant disparities in the median incomes for those with and without disabilities. Median earnings for people with no disability were over $28,000 compared to the $17,000 median income reported for individuals with a disability (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006).
  • In an effort to investigate unemployment disparities, a recent study surveyed Human Resources and project managers about their perceptions of hiring persons with disabilities. Results indicated that these professionals held negative perceptions related to the productivity, social maturity, interpersonal skills and psychological adjustment of persons with disabilities (Chan, 2008) [American Psychological Association, accessed 12/6/12]

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