Myths & Facts Behind The Campaign To Attack Disability Benefits

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.

Is the recent increase in the number of people receiving disability benefits surprising?

Is there widespread fraud in disability programs?

Is it difficult to receive disability benefits?

Have medical advancements stopped the rise in disabilities?

Does the number of people receiving disability benefits harm the economy?

Do disability benefits for children help families?

Britain recently changed its disability benefits system. Should we copy that model?

MYTH: The Recent Rise In Disability Benefits Is “Astonishing”

Fox News' Rich Lowry: “The Growth ... Has Been Astonishing.” As a guest on America Live, Fox News contributor and National Review editor Rich Lowry claimed the growth in the number of people receiving federal disability benefits “has been astonishing.” [Fox News, America Live, 3/27/13]

NPR's Planet Money: The Rise Of Disability Benefits In America Is “Startling.” A report on the public radio program Planet Money -- which was also featured on Chicago Public Radio's This American Life and NPR's All Things Considered -- was subtitled “The startling rise of disability in America” and claimed “the number of Americans who are on disability has skyrocketed.” [NPR, Planet Money, 3/22/13]

FACT: Growth In Benefits Largely Due To Changing Demographics And The Financial Crisis

Demographic Changes Account For Much Of Disability Insurance Enrollment Growth

Former Social Security Commissioners: Social Security Actuaries Accurately Projected That Demographic Changes Would Fuel Growth In Disability Programs. Eight former commissioners of the Social Security Administration wrote an open letter in response to the story produced by NPR's Planet Money to express their “significant concerns” about the story's accuracy:

[T]he series aired on NPR sensationalizes this growth, as well as the DI trust fund's projected shortfall. History tells a less dramatic story. Since Social Security was enacted, Congress has “reallocated” payroll tax revenues across the OASI and DI trust funds - about equally in both directions - some 11 times to account for demographic shifts. In 1994, the last time such reallocation occurred, SSA actuaries projected that similar action would next be required in 2016. They were right on target. [An Open Letter from Former Commissioners of the Social Security Administration, 4/4/13]

CBPP: “Changes In The Workforce Explain Most Of The Growth In The Disability Rolls.” According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), "[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. [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 8/9/12]

Increased Child Poverty And The Recession Account For Rise In Supplemental Security Income

CBPP: Number Of Children Receiving SSI Benefits Rising Due To Higher Rate Of Child Poverty And Prolonged Economic Downturn. CBPP found that the number of children receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for their disabilities has not risen substantially over the past decade, and explained that the recent temporary increase was due to the higher rate of child poverty and the prolonged economic downturn:

Is the number of children receiving SSI benefits mushrooming? 

In a word, no. In October 2012, SSI provided monthly cash benefits to 1.3 million disabled children under age 18 whose families have low incomes and few assets (these are basic eligibility criteria) -- or about 1.7 percent of all children in the United States. That rate has inched up very gradually for the last decade, probably due to advances in detection and diagnosis of certain disabling conditions and the rising rate of child poverty, and has temporarily increased in the wake of the prolonged economic downturn, which has increased the number of families with low incomes and hence the number of disabled children eligible for SSI. [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 12/14/12]

CEPR: Increase In Child Poverty Made More Children With Disabilities Financially Eligible For Benefits. A presentation from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) found that the “increased poverty rate among families with children” contributed to growth in individuals receiving SSI benefits because in order to be eligible for the program, families have to meet certain financial need requirements.

The presentation included the following graph:

CEPR graph showing increase in child poverty compared to the number of children receiving SSI

[Center for Economic and Policy Research, 8/7/11]

For more information on media misrepresentations of federal programs that benefit the families of children with severe disabilities, click here.

MYTH: There Is Widespread Fraud In Federal Disability Programs

Fox News' Shannon Bream Suggested All Federal Disability Payments Are Fraudulent. Fox News reporter Shannon Bream, guest hosting America Live, pushed the notion that the fraud rate in federal disability programs is 100 percent, claiming "[t]here are reportedly 8.8 million people in the U.S. collecting disability benefits under false pretenses." In fact, 8.8 million is the total number of workers who received Social Security Disability Insurance in 2012. [Fox News, America Live, 2/4/13, via Media Matters]

Time Magazine's Joe Klein: Social Security Disability Is Full Of “Scammers.” Time Magazine political columnist Joe Klein claimed that “the government has gotten sloppy about admissions” in Social Security disability programs, and that he knew from what people told him on road trips he had taken that “in all but the most severe cases” the recipients of benefits could work in public service jobs, which would decrease the number of “scam artists”:

Now, to be sure, there are workers who fit the program's inevitable intent: older workers who suffer serious injuries and need support until they reach the age of eligibility for social security. There are others whose medical or mental disabilities make them clearly unable to work. But the government has gotten sloppy about admissions. Remember, a good chunk of people receiving welfare simply disappeared when the work requirement was added. The reason? They already had full-time jobs in the black or grey markets. It took a while, but a great many of those folks finally figured out there was another scam to be had--social security disability.

An argument can be made that it was humane to expand the SSD acceptance rate after the housing crash of 2008. There were no jobs to be had. But we are in recovery now--and scamming the system is never a good idea. The neighbors inevitably figure out who is gaming the system. The stories grow and become exaggerated--I've heard specific tales of abuse all over America on my road trips.


Indeed, in all but the most severe cases, there are public service jobs that can be done as a way of paying back--and a way of culling the scam artists. All too often, the scammers find support on the left from people who believe that free enterprise is inherently unfair and the “victims,” even the unworthy poor, deserve any help they can get. That sort of thinking is insidious and morally deficient. [Time Magazine, In the Arena, 4/9/13]

Fox News' Megyn Kelly: “Just Because [The GAO] Didn't Unearth The Fraud Doesn't Mean It's Not Being Committed.” On Fox News' America Live, host Megyn Kelly insisted fraud was “so high” in federal disability programs, despite the fact that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found no evidence of widespread fraud:

KELLY: Nobody's going to question you, you've got bad heart disease, or you know, you can't work, people understand that. But people think fraud, when they see, you can never work again because of your depression? And now the federal taxpayer has to subsidize your life forever because you're depressed?


There's no question a lot of these claims are legit, and people have no problem supporting their fellow Americans in need, as I mentioned Rich, but you know, you've got, the numbers are just so staggering, it's not just the outlier cases. We covered a case earlier today on Fox of a cop who was getting disability payments and just charged with faking the injury when the feds caught him rocking out with his Brooklyn punk band, oh well. And it's not just one case, I mean you know you hear these stories all the time, in particular about some certain public service employees, who are suddenly permanently disabled, and we have to pay for them now through the rest of their lives.


Just because [the Government Accountability Office] didn't unearth the fraud doesn't mean it's not being committed. I mean, you can get a doctor to say that you've got permanent disabling depression or back pain, that doesn't, the GAO might not be able to snuff that out. You know, the numbers are just so high. [Fox News, America Live, 3/27/13]

FACT: Disability Fraud Is Minimal

GAO Found That Error Rate In Improper Payments Of Social Security Benefits Is Negligible. A FY2011 investigation by the Government Accountability Office found that improper payments of Social Security benefits that include Disability Insurance had an error rate of just 0.6 percent. [Government Accountability Office, 3/28/12]

SSA Deputy Commissioner: 99 Percent Of Social Security Disability Payments Are Accurate. The deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration testified before the House Committee on Ways and Means that according to the administration's data, disability payments “are highly accurate”:

Overall, our SSDI payments are highly accurate. Our most recent data show that, in FY 2010, 99.3 percent of all SSDI payments were free of an overpayment, and 99.0 percent were free of an underpayment. While we are proud of our high accuracy rate for SSDI payments, we recognize that our SSI overpayment accuracy rate falls short of that high standard. To a large extent, inaccuracy is inherent in the complex program rules and the delays in receiving income data. SSI payments can change each month due to income and resource fluctuations and changes in living arrangements. Our overpayment accuracy rate, though improving, reflects that complexity. In the SSI program, 93.3 percent of all payments were free of an overpayment, and 97.6 percent of all payments were free of an underpayment, a significant improvement from FY 2008. [Official Testimony before the House Committee on Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Social Security, 1/24/12

Fmr. Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue: Fraud Is Less Than 1 Percent Of SSI Payments. Former Bush Administration Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue explained on MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes that fraud constitutes less than 1 percent of the outlays of Supplemental Security Income, one of the federal benefit programs for individuals with disabilities. [MSNBC, All In with Chris Hayes, 4/5/13, via Mediaite]

MYTH: It Is “Easy” To Receive Disability Benefits

Fox's 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 & Friends, 12/6/12, via Media Matters]

Wash. Post's Charles Lane: Social Security Disability Has “Permissive Eligibility Criteria.” Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane claimed that “a growing body of economic and journalistic evidence suggests that SSDI reduces work incentives, because of its permissive eligibility criteria and relatively high benefits”:

[A] growing body of economic and journalistic evidence suggests that SSDI reduces work incentives, because of its permissive eligibility criteria and relatively high benefits, as compared to low-wage workers' potential earnings.

Once a backup plan for dying or incapacitated workers near retirement age, SSDI now serves as ersatz unemployment insurance or welfare -- particularly attractive, and particularly hard to give up, in a sluggish economy.


[C]urrent SSDI eligibility rules reflect the outcry over efforts by presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to trim the rolls during an economic downturn. In 1984, an election year, Congress called a halt to the cutbacks, and Reagan assented. The permissive criteria enshrined in law that year account for much of the program's growth since. [The Washington Post, 4/8/13]

FACT: “Eligibility Criteria Are Stringent,” And More Than Half Of 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 (CBO), 61 percent of disability applicants are denied during the Initial Determination Stage. Twenty-seven 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” And Waiting Periods Are Typically Months Long. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted that the eligibility criteria for disability insurance applicants are “stringent,” 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 that applicants 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]

President Of The Shriver Center: There's Nothing “Squishy” About The Disability Determination Process, “Once You Understand It.” In response to NPR's Planet Money report on the recent rise in disability benefits that claimed the definition of disability was “squishy” and therefore difficult to determine with accuracy, President of the Shriver Center John Bourman wrote that Planet Money reporter Chana Joffe-Walt “apparently did not dig enough” to understand the disability determination process, which requires input from medical experts and an assessment of the severity of impairments:

Joffe-Walt says the disability definition is “squishy,” especially with respect to impairments that are not readily visible, because “you can end up with one person with high blood pressure who is labeled disabled and another who is not.” She apparently did not dig enough to find out that core inquiries in the disability determination process, which may be answered only by medical experts, are about the “severity” of impairments and the impact they have, when combined with all of the person's impairments, on his or her ability to function in the workplace. High blood pressure, in particular, is explicitly blocked from being the basis for disability all by itself. Thus, two people with high blood pressure of different severity, in the presence of different additional medical impairments, can easily fall on different sides of the disability line. Nothing “squishy” about it, once you understand it. [Huffington Post Media Blog, 3/29/13]

MYTH: Medical Advancements Mean Fewer People Have Disabilities

Fox News' Gretchen Carlson Suggested More People Cannot Have Disabilities Because Workplace Safety Has “Gotten Better.” On Fox & Friends, co-host Gretchen Carlson questioned the rise in the number of people receiving disability benefits, asking, “What's happened? Is it that many more people who have actually become disabled? Because a lot of experts say nothing has really changed in the workplace for safety. If anything, it's gotten better for people that get injured.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 4/8/13, via Media Matters]

NPR's Planet Money Questioned Rise In Disability Claims Because “Medical Advances Have Allowed Many More People To Remain On The Job.” NPR's Planet Money report on disability benefits suggested the rise in the number of people receiving disability benefits was questionable because of “medical advances” that have “allowed many more people to remain on the job”:

In the past three decades, the number of Americans who are on disability has skyrocketed. The rise has come even as medical advances have allowed many more people to remain on the job, and new laws have banned workplace discrimination against the disabled. Every month, 14 million people now get a disability check from the government. [NPR, Planet Money3/22/13]

FACT: Nearly 1 In 5 Americans Has A Disability, And Research Shows Disabling Conditions Are On The Rise

Census: “Nearly 1 In 5 People Have A Disability In The U.S.” According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, "[a]bout 56.7 million people -- 19 percent of the population -- had a disability in 2010," or roughly 1 in 5. Only about 14 million Americans receive benefits from federal disability programs. [United States Census Bureau, 7/25/12; Social Security Administration, April 2013]

SSA: “A 20-Year-Old Worker Has A 3-In-10 Chance Of Becoming Disabled Before Reaching Full Retirement Age.” According to the Social Security Administration's handbook on federal disability insurance, "[s]tudies show that a 20-year-old worker has a 3-in-10 chance of becoming disabled before reaching full retirement age." [Social Security Administration, June 2012]

Wash. Post: “Study Shows World's People Living Longer But With More Disability.” The Washington Post reported that a new study showed that while advances in medicine mean people are living longer, they are also living with more disabilities, particularly conditions like mental illness and back pain, which are harder to treat and prevent than other disabilities:

People are living longer lives, but the time they are gaining isn't entirely time with good health. For every year of life expectancy added since 1990, about 9 1/2 months is time in good health. The rest is time in a diminished state -- in pain, immobility, mental incapacity or medical support such as dialysis. For people who survive to age 50, the added time is “discounted” even further. For every added year they get, only seven months are healthy.

“Progress in reducing disability just hasn't kept pace with progress in reducing mortality,” said Joshua A. Salomon of the Harvard School of Public Health, one of the project leaders.

The trend of adding increasing amounts of bad health to life is known as the “expansion of morbidity.” It is likely to be the biggest challenge to patients, doctors and people who pay for medical care for the next few centuries.

Mental illness (including addiction) is now responsible for 23 percent of “years lived with disability.” Low-back pain is responsible for 11 percent. Those conditions are a lot harder to treat, or prevent, than childhood infections and malnutrition. [The Washington Post, 12/13/12]

NBER: Disability Beneficiaries With Mental And Musculoskeletal Disorders Live Longer With Their Disabilities. A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper explained that the increased number of individuals receiving disability benefits for mental and musculoskeletal disorders, such as arthritis and back pain, was due to “an early onset and low age-specific mortality” of those disorders:

Because mental and musculoskeletal disorders have an early onset and low age-specific mortality, Disability Insurance beneficiaries with these diagnoses experience relatively long durations on the program. Thus, in 1983, 4.9 percent of people receiving disability insurance in that year died; by 2004, only 3.1 percent of those receiving disability benefits in that year died. [National Bureau of Economic Research, August 2006]

Former Social Security Commissioners: About 1 In 5 Male And 1 In 7 Female Disability Beneficiaries Die Within Five Years Of Receiving Benefits. In their open letter response to NPR's Planet Money report on disability benefits, eight former commissioners of the Social Security Administration noted that “about 1 in 5 male DI beneficiaries and 1 in 7 female DI beneficiaries die within 5 years of receiving benefits.” [An Open Letter from Former Commissioners of the Social Security Administration, 4/4/13]

CBPP: “People Who Collect DI Are At Least Three Times As Likely To Die As Other People Their Age.” A blog post from The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted that disability insurance recipients were “at least three times as likely to die as other people their age”:

People who collect DI are at least three times as likely to die as other people their age (see chart).

For some DI recipients, the health diagnoses are bleak:  cancer, emphysema, congestive heart failure or kidney failure.  Many other recipients' primary diagnoses, including mental disorders and impairments that affect their bones, muscles, and joints, aren't usually fatal by themselves -- though often recipients suffer from multiple conditions that can complicate their health.

Moreover, DI beneficiaries typically have low income, limited education, and a history of poor access to the health care system.

The report included the following chart:

CBPP chart showing death rates for diability insurance recipients are higher than for the general population

[Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Off the Charts, 4/4/13]

MYTH: People Receiving Disability Benefits Are Hurting The Economy

Charles Lane: Social Security Disability Caused Employment-To-Population Ratio To Decline. Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane misleadingly cited research to claim that Social Security Disability payments harmed the economy and eroded the workforce, writing, “SSDI is one reason, in addition to recession and aging, that the U.S. ratio of employment to population declined from 62.5 percent to 58.5 percent in the past 10 years.” [The Washington Post, 4/8/13]

WSJ: “Workers Stuck In Disability Stunt Economic Recovery.” A Wall Street Journal article headlined “Workers Stuck in Disability Stunt Economic Recovery” claimed that “workers who piled into the Social Security Administration's disability program” were costing the economy billions by not instead participating in the labor force:

The unexpectedly large number of American workers who piled into the Social Security Administration's disability program during the recession and its aftermath threatens to cost the economy tens of billions a year in lost wages and diminished tax revenues.

Signs of the problem surfaced Friday, in a dismal jobs report that showed U.S. labor force participation rates falling last month to the lowest levels since 1979, the wrong direction for an economy that instead needs new legions of working men and women to drive growth and sustain a baby boomer generation headed to retirement. [The Wall Street Journal, 4/10/13]

FACT: Disability Benefits Have Minor Effect On Employment Data And People With Disabilities Face Greater Job Losses During Economic Downturns

Increased Employment Rates Among People Who Receive Disability Benefits Would Have A Minor Effect On Total Employment Figures

Wash. Post's Wonkblog: Disability Benefits Are Not “Luring Away People Who Could Work.” Washington Post's Wonkblog interviewed Harold Pollack, an expert on disability policy at the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration, who explained that data show federal disability benefits are “not pulling people out of the workforce who would otherwise be there”:

[Brad Plumer]: Now there's another big concern that once workers qualify for disability, they leave the labor force altogether. They never work again. Is that a real worry? Is the disability program really luring away people who could work? 

[Harold Pollack]: I don't think so. One way to see this is to look at the employment rates for people who applied for disability but were then denied. And those are actually quite low, below 50 percent. That suggests we're not pulling people out of the workforce who would otherwise be there. [The Washington Post, Wonkblog, 3/28/13, emphasis original]

CEPR: Study Shows If More Individuals On Disability Benefits Worked It Would Have Minor Effect On Employment Figures. The Center for Economic and Policy research's Dean Baker responded to Charles Lane's aforementioned column in The Washington Post, pointing out that the study actually showed increasing employment rates among people receiving federal disability benefits would have a relatively minor effect on the employment-to-population ratio:

Lane's big club in his attack on the disability system is a new study from the University of Michigan. He quotes from the study:

“the employment rate of new beneficiaries would have been 28 percentage points higher in the absence of benefit receipt.”

He then adds:

“SSDI is one reason, in addition to recession and aging, that the U.S. ratio of employment to population declined from 62.5 percent to 58.5 percent in the past 10 years.”

This sure sounds like an interesting study. If we go to the study itself, we find in the abstract:

“We find that among the estimated 23% of applicants on the margin of program entry, employment would have been 28 percentage points higher had they not received benefits.”

This means that we would see an increase in employment rates of 28 percentage points among the 23 percent who are considered marginal applicants if they had not received benefits. That translates into an increase in employment among all applicants of 6.4 percentage points. If we applied this to the entire population of 9 million workers getting disability, it would mean that employment would rise by about 580,000, or just over 0.25 percentage points of the civilian population. 


In short, the paper cited by Lane implies that the bonanza for the government from cracking the whip is much smaller than he claims. It also suggests that any efforts to further tighten eligibility (only 40 percent of claims are approved) is likely to lead to many more people with real disabilities being denied benefits. [Center for Economic and Policy Research, Beat the Press, 4/9/13]

Individuals With Disabilities Were More Likely To Face Impediments To Work During The Economic Downturn

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 Social Security disability programs. The report found that the increase in disability applications was partially 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]

Vice President Of National Academy Of Social Insurance: “Impediments To Work Are Compounded For People With Disabilities When The Economy Turns Sour.” Bloomberg reported that “the number of people collecting disability surged as the economy contracted” and that this “gain follows a pattern typical of recessions because Social Security requires that claimants be unable to 'engage in any substantial gainful activity,' a stipulation more easily satisfied when jobs are scarce and wages get cut, according to Virginia Reno, vice-president for income security policy at the National Academy of Social Insurance in Washington.” Bloomberg quoted Reno as further saying: “Impediments to work are compounded for people with disabilities when the economy turns sour and there are simply fewer jobs and greater competition for the jobs that remain.” [Bloomberg, 5/3/12]

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, NewsHour7/26/12]

MYTH: Current System Does Not Help Children With Disabilities

NPR's Planet Money: “The Disability Program Stands In Opposition” To Supporting Children With Disabilities In Poverty. In its March disability report, NPR's Planet Money pushed a series of myths about Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI), a Social Security program that supports families that include children with disabilities. The report concluded that while a majority of Americans are in favor of “some form of government support for disabled children living in poverty” that should encourage children to attend and perform well at school, the current “disability program stands in opposition to every one of these aims”:

I haven't taken a survey or anything, but I'm guessing a large majority of Americans would be in favor of some form of government support for disabled children living in poverty. We would have a hard time agreeing on exactly how we want to offer support, but I think there are some basic things we'd all agree on.

Kids should be encouraged to go to school. Kids should want to do well in school. Parents should want their kids to do well in school. Kids should be confident their parents can provide for them regardless of how they do in school. Kids should become more and more independent as they grow older and hopefully be able to support themselves at around age 18.

The disability program stands in opposition to every one of these aims. [National Public Radio, Planet Money3/22/13]

NY Times' Nick Kristof: Disability Benefits For Children Perpetuate Poverty. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof claimed that Supplemental Security Income (SSI) was “a program that sometimes perpetuates” poverty and argued that money should be taken away from the program to invest in other initiatives:

There's no doubt that some families with seriously disabled children receive a lifeline from S.S.I. But the bottom line is that we shouldn't try to fight poverty with a program that sometimes perpetuates it.


I hope that the budget negotiations in Washington may offer us a chance to take money from S.S.I. and invest in early childhood initiatives instead. [The New York Times, 12/7/12]

FACT: Social Security System Significantly Reduces Poverty For Children With Disabilities

NASI: “Families Raising Children With Disabilities Experience Higher Rates Of Economic Hardship.” A report from the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) found that “families caring for a child with a disability are more likely than other families with children to experience various forms of economic insecurity,” partly because many parents of children with disabilities “have to cut their hours or temporarily leave work to care for the disabled child”:

Families caring for children with disabilities incur additional costs and burdens compared to other families with children. Recent research documents the impact on families caring for disabled children. Susan Parish and her colleagues find that families caring for a child with a disability are more likely than other families with children to experience various forms of economic insecurity.


[A]t each income level, families with a disabled child are more likely to experience hardship than families at the same income level, but with nondisabled children. Higher rates of insecurity persist for families with disabled children when incomes are up to twice the poverty level, with more than two thirds of families at those income levels experiencing food insecurity.

Families raising children with disabilities experience higher rates of economic hardship in part because they face additional costs associated with their child's disability, and in part due to foregone parent earnings. Many parents of disabled children -- typically mothers -- have to cut their hours or temporarily leave work to care for the disabled child.

The report included the following graph:

NASI graph showing the number of families experiencing food or housing insecurity by income and disability status

[National Academy of Social Insurance, Social Security Brief, November 2012]

CAP: SSI “Reduces Poverty And Increases Economic Security.” The Center for American Progress (CAP) cited research from economists Mark Duggan and Melissa Schettini Kearney which found that receiving Supplemental Security benefits reduces poverty and increases the economic security of families:

Reduces poverty and increases economic security: Supplement Security increases the economic security of families caring for disabled children. Economists Mark Duggan and Melissa Schettini Kearney found that once families with disabled children start receiving Supplemental Security, their overall household income increases by 20 percent on average, and the likelihood of having income below the federal poverty line decreases by about 11 percent. At the same time, the amount of household income derived from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families declines. [Center for American Progress, 9/10/12, emphasis original]

NBER: SSI Reduces The Chance A Child Lives In Poverty By 11 Percentage Points. An August 2005 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper found that enrollment in Supplemental Security Insurance “is associated with a statistically significant and persistent reduction in the probability that a child lives in poverty of roughly 11 percentage points.” [National Bureau of Economic Research, August 2005]

MYTH: Britain's New Disability System Is A Good Model For Reform

Fox Business' Stuart Varney: Britain's Tests For Disability Eligibility “Exposed A Giant Scam.” Fox Business host Stuart Varney claimed on Fox & Friends that it was easy to receive Social Security disability benefits because individuals did not have to “prove” their disability, and further claimed that revisions to the British disability benefit system, which included a test for identifying fraud in the system, “worked” and “exposed a giant scam”:

BRIAN KILMEADE (host): Stuart, I thought it was interesting as you told us in the break, the British had the same problem, and they hired a French company to come in and evaluate the legitimacy of these claims. Did it work?

STUART VARNEY: Well it worked, in the sense that it exposed a giant scam. In Britain, they did, it was a computer test. They didn't say go get checked by a doctor, they ran the records through a computer, this is what the French company did. They found that half the people getting these benefits were in fact capable of working. And one-third of the recipients, they were scamming, basically. They walked away, they would walk away if they were subjected to any kind of test. So the British system, they call it incapacity benefit, not disability. It's a giant scam. That's what it is. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 4/8/13, via Media Matters]

Fox News Contributor Jonah Goldberg: The U.S. Should Emulate Britain And Ask Recipients Of Disability Benefits To Take A Medical Exam To Prove Their Disability. In a column featured in the New York Post and Los Angeles Times, Fox News contributor Jonah Goldberg argued that one way to determine whether there was widespread fraud in disability programs was “to ask every recipient to get a thorough examination, just as they did in Britain”:

The British government recently asked everyone receiving an “incapacity benefit” -- a disability program slowly being phased out under new reforms -- to submit to a medical test to confirm they were too disabled to work. A third of recipients (878,000 people) dropped out of the program rather than be examined. Of those tested, more than half (55 percent) were found fit for work, and a quarter were found fit for some work.

But that's Britain, where there's a long tradition of gaming the dole. Americans would never think of taking advantage of the taxpayers or misleading the government. Well, except for the couple dozen people who have pleaded guilty to scamming the LIRR's federal disability system in a $1 billion fraud scheme. A billion bucks would pay for a lot of White House tours.


That points to the even bigger parts of the story. As the nature of the economy changes, disability programs are sometimes taking the place of welfare for those who feel locked out of the workforce -- and state governments are loving it. States pay for welfare, the feds pay for disabilities.

There are those who are quick to argue that this is all bogus, there's nothing amiss with the disability system that greater funding and a better economy won't fix. Maybe they're right. One way to find out would be to ask every recipient to get a thorough examination, just as they did in Britain. Maybe the results here in the United States would be interesting too. [New York Post, 4/2/13]

FACT: UK Disability Benefits Tests Were Largely Overturned On Appeal, And Further Cuts Will Plunge Thousands Of People With Disabilities Into Poverty

BBC: 40 Percent Of New Disability Eligibility Tests Were Overturned On Appeal. BBC News reported that the initial tests evaluating disability claims in the U.K. found roughly 23 percent of recipients were no longer eligible for benefits, and roughly half were “capable of some work.” However, the BBC explained that a majority of those decisions were appealed, and 40 percent of the appeals were successful, reversing the initial decision and reinstating benefits for the individual. [BBC News, 3/25/12]

Demos: “Disabled Families Across The Country Faced Significant Reductions In Their Household Income” Following Initial Cuts To Disability Benefits. Demos, a cross-party think tank, studied the impact of cuts to individuals with disabilities in Britain following budget changes in June 2010, and looked at five families that included individuals with disabilities. They found “disabled families across the country faced significant reductions in their household income,” and concluded “the deepest cuts were yet to take effect”:

We calculated how the welfare reforms announced in the Emergency Budget and in the run up to the Spending Review would affect five typical disabled families. Our research showed that, far from being protected from the worst of the cuts, disabled families across the country faced significant reductions in their household income. Losses of two to three thousand pounds over the course of the next parliament were typical and overall, we estimated that disabled people would lose £9 billion in welfare support in the next five years.


Demos has now published the final instalment of the study, Destination Unknown: Summer 2012. The report found that despite the drop in income and worsening conditions for each of our five families over the preceding two years, the deepest cuts were yet to take effect. [Demos, accessed 4/24/13]

Demos: New Disability Benefit System “Most Likely To Increase Disability Poverty Rather Than Incentivise Work.” Demos found that the new disability benefit system the UK is implementing in 2013, known as the Disability Living Allowance (DLA), is “most likely to increase disability poverty rather than incentivise work”:

However, there are four concerning aspects to the nature of the reforms which are accompanying them. The first is that the government believes cutting benefits will inevitably incentivise work. This takes no account of those who may be unable to work (those with complex needs as well as carers) or those who can only work with personalised support. For these groups, cutting benefits will undermine their quality of life and little else. The second is that DLA, the only benefit which compensates for the additional costs of living with a disability and is non-means tested, is increasingly mis-represented as an 'out of work' benefit and so subject to the same cuts as other benefits to 'incentivise work'. Again, this is most likely to increase disability poverty rather than incentivise work. The third is an increasing focus on the medical aspect of disability, to the detriment of the social model - that is, a recognition that social and practical factors have a role to play in a person's disability, not just their medical impairment. This is leading to the adoption of exclusively medical testing to assess eligibility for incapacity benefits and even DLA - which can only feasibly be based on a calculation of additional living costs. The fourth and final problem is the government's exclusive focus on people's economic contribution to society. Finding employment is seen as the only successful outcome for welfare-to-work providers to achieve. This creates perverse incentives only to help those who are easiest to employ; it overlooks those who may not be able to engage in formal employment but who can contribute to society in other ways (eg volunteering, building social capital), and it also leads to work programmes that do not build people's capabilities or recognise distance travelled towards employability. This is particularly inappropriate in the current economic climate, where jobs are harder to come by. [Demos, accessed 4/24/13]

The Guardian: Research Shows Benefit Cuts Will “Plunge Tens Of Thousands Of Disabled People Deeper Into Poverty.” The Guardian reported that research shows further reforms to the disability system in the U.K. will “plunge tens of thousands of disabled people deeper into poverty”:

Thousands of disabled people will be hit by up to six different welfare cuts, with the very worst off potentially losing up to £23,000 each over five years, research shows.

The effect of the changes, the bulk of which kick in after 1 April, will be to plunge tens of thousands of disabled people deeper into poverty, says a study that captures the multiple impacts of social security reforms for the first time.

The research, carried out for the Guardian, estimates that by 2017-18 about 3.7 million disabled people will collectively lose £28bn as a result of the reforms. Individuals will be hit by one of seven combinations of welfare cuts and small numbers could lose more than £20,000 each. [The Guardian, 3/26/13]