Fox News Falsely Claims Americans Use “Disability Option” To Avoid Work

Fox News' Stuart Varney dishonestly hyped new data on the number of Americans receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) to accuse beneficiaries of committing fraud to avoid finding a job. But experts agree that fraud in the SSDI program is low and there is no evidence Americans are faking their disabilities.

A May 21 Drudge Report headline proclaimed a “Record 10,999,447 On Disability and linked to a article announcing that the total number of disability beneficiaries in the U.S rose in April “setting a new all-time record”:

On Fox's America's Newsroom, Fox Business host Stuart Varney claimed the “explosion” in disability beneficiaries showed “America is becoming increasingly a welfare state. ” Varney accused SSDI beneficiaries of committing fraud by taking the “disability option” supposedly where able-bodied individuals who can't find a job use SSDI “almost as an insurance policy against no income or no job”:

VARNEY: During the Obama years we've gone from eight million people, just about eight million people claiming Social Security disability payments all the way up to nearly 11 million. That is a huge explosion in disability payments. Now a lot of people are taking what's called the disability option. They can't find a job. So they take -- they treat disability almost as an insurance policy against no income or no job. So you have got this explosion in disability payments. And Martha, we can't afford it.


Two points, number one, if we go on like this the Social Security disability trust fund, totally runs out of money by the end of 2016. That is not that far away. Number two, there's been an expansion in who qualifies for disability payments. Mental disorder is now acceptable. Mood disorder, or back pain. Now, that kind of opens the door to fraud because you can't really prove a lot of that. And plus, once you get disability, you're on it for a very long time because the virtually very little inspection process to figure out who is off the disability, who has recovered. So pretty much payment for life. We can't afford this

Varney's often repeated “disability option” myth has been thoroughly debunked. As Media Matters has noted, the eligibility criteria for Social Security disability are stringent, with waiting periods that are typically months long, and more than half of all applicants are denied.  

Moreover, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) found that “most of the growth in the disability rolls” can be attributed to changes in the workforce:

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]

Fraud is also not a widespread problem in the SSDI program. In 2013, the Deputy Commissioner of Disability Adjudication and Review at the Social Security Administration testified to Congress that the error rate of disability claims in SSDI was “less than 10 percent” with many of the errors being attributed to procedural problems which “did not necessarily result in incorrect decisions.” The National Council of Disability Determination testified Congress in 2013 that the net accuracy rate of disability determinations “has been 97% or better over the last 3 years.”

Fox News and other right-wing media continue to lie about the SSDI program in their attempts to prove rampant fraud and waste in the program.