Fox Obscures Important Facts To Attack Disability Benefits

Fox figures claim that many federal disability benefit payments are fraudulent because the number of people in the program has increased under the Obama administration. In fact, improper payments of disability benefits are minimal and experts agree the higher levels of disability benefits are a direct result of the recession.

Fox Hypes Increase In Disability Benefits To Criticize Obama Administration

Charles Payne: “It's A Scandal. ... You Can Go In There As A Young, Adult Male And Say This Economy Is Too Tough, And They'll Give You A [Disability] Check.” Appearing on Fox Business' Varney & Co., Fox Business' Charles Payne used the offensive term “crazy check” to falsely imply that individuals can pretend to have mental disabilities in order to receive Social Security Insurance Disability Benefits. Payne implied that this fraud explains the increase in the number of people receiving these benefits:

STUART VARNEY [host]: A new record in the number of people collecting Social Security disability insurance benefits. 8,803,335. That is a very big number. It has exploded under President Obama.


PAYNE: It's a scandal. When it's truly ever uncovered what's going on here, a lot of men, 25, 26 years old sitting on a porch all day long because every two weeks they get a crazy check and they're on disability. Now we started this show talking about my wife, it took her two years being out of work before she was eligible for any disability. Now you can go in there as a young, adult male and say this economy is too tough, and they'll give you a check. [Fox Business, Varney & Co., 10/26/12]

Eric Bolling: “Record Number Of People On Disability” Due To “Obamanomics.” Eric Bolling, co-host of Fox News' The Five, claimed the “record number of people on disability” had to do with “Obamanomics”:

BOLLING: It's a question of do you want four more years of Obamanomics. Pull up this next graphic that I put together. People on disability -- Dana, weigh in on this. There are now a record number of people on disability. In October, 8.803 million Americans went on disability. If you combine that with the number of people, Americans unemployed, 20 million people. Divide that by the workforce. It's about 15 percent. [Fox News, The Five, 10/26/12]

Lou Dobbs: Only “Logical Explanation” For Increase In Benefits Is That “The Administration Has Made Dependency A Watchword” And “Reduced The Standards For People.” On his Fox News show, Bill O'Reilly claimed that "[a]ccording to the Social Security Administration, the number of American workers currently on disability all-time high in this country." Guest and Fox Business host Lou Dobbs claimed that the “only one logical explanation” for the rise in disability benefits was that “the administration has made dependency a watch word” and that “they have reduced the standards for people.” Dobbs added that “it's much easier” to receive benefits, and concluded: “There is not an epidemic of mental illness. There is no epidemic of other disabilities or infirmities.” [Fox News, The O'Reilly Factor, 10/26/12]

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

Congressional Budget Office: “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]

Vice President At 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]

Senate Permanent Subcommittee On Investigations Report: “The Stress To The Disability System Was Likely Exacerbated When The Financial Crisis Hit In 2008.” 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 News 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 News, 7/26/12]

Moreover, The Number Of Workers On Disability Has Increased Steadily Since 1980s

National Bureau Of Economic Research: “By Far The Most Important Contributor To The Recent Growth Of Disability Insurance Is The Liberalization Of The DI Screening Process In 1984.” In 2006, the National Bureau of Economic Research studied the federal Disability benefits program and found “by far the most important contributor to the recent growth of Disability Insurance is the liberalization of the DI screening process in 1984,” under President Reagan:

By far the most important contributor to the recent growth of Disability Insurance is the liberalization of the DI screening process in 1984, which increased the number of disability awards and shifted the composition of recipients towards claimants with lower mortality disorders.


The reform of Disability Insurance in the 1980s ushered in two decades of program expansion. In the 21 years following the 1984 legislation, the DI rolls grew by 148 percent, from 2.6 million to 6.5 million beneficiaries, and the percentage of the nonelderly adult population receiving disability benefits from the program grew from 2.2 to 4.1 percent. [National Bureau of Economic Research, August 2006]

Social Security Administration: “The Number Of Disabled Workers Grew Steadily Until 1978” And “Started To Increase Again In 1984.” According to data from the Social Security Administration, the number of workers on disability has been steadily growing since the 1980s:

The number of disabled workers grew steadily until 1978, declined slightly until 1983, started to increase again in 1984, and began to increase more rapidly beginning in 1990. The growth in the 1980s and 1990s was the result of demographic changes, a recession, and legislative changes. The number of disabled adult children has grown slightly, and the number of disabled widow(er)s has remained fairly level. In December 2011, over 8.5 million disabled workers, over 977,000 disabled adult children, and just over 251,000 disabled widow(er)s received disability benefits. 

The report included the following chart:

[Social Security Administration, July 2012

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]

GAO: “Factors Such As The Rising Number Of Children In Poverty And Increasing Diagnosis Of Certain Mental Impairments Have Likely Contributed To This Growth.” The Government Accountability Office noted that the rising levels of child poverty and “increasing diagnosis of certain mental impairments” have also likely contributed to the higher number of people receiving disability benefits over the last decade:

The 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. Factors such as the rising number of children in poverty and increasing diagnosis of certain mental impairments have likely contributed to this growth. [Government Accountability Office, June 2012

Improper Payments Of Disability Benefits Are Not A Widespread Problem

GAO Found That Improper Government Payments In Three Main Disability Support Services Are Negligible. A FY2011 investigation by the Government Accountability Office 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 (i.e., a 4.7 percent error rate)." GAO further noted that according to the Office of Management and Budget, “10 programs accounted for about $107 billion or 93 percent of the total estimated improper payments agencies reported for fiscal year 2011.” Of that $107 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. [Government Accountability Office, 3/28/12]

National Bureau Of Economic Research: “The Extent Of Such Cheating Is Difficult To Evaluate For Both Practical And Policy Reasons.” A report on disability benefits by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that if there was “cheating” in the programs, it would be difficult to evaluate and could not be based on “medical standards”:

Put more bluntly, are a substantial share of Disability Insurance recipients cheating? This cheating could take different forms: Work-capable individuals, including those with nondisabling impairments, might exit the labor force to claim benefits. Alternatively, individuals who are voluntarily or involuntarily out of the labor force but not impaired might file a disability claim to gain income support and health insurance.

The extent of such cheating is difficult to evaluate for both practical and policy reasons. At a practical level, there are no systematic, objective data on the work capacity of current Disability Insurance beneficiaries and so there is no reliable means to estimate what share could potentially work. Nor can the question of cheating be resolved by an appeal to medical standards. While certain medical conditions are clearly disabling, “disability” is not a medical condition. Disability is a dividing line (or zone) chosen by policymakers on a continuum of ailments affecting claimants' capability to engage in paying work and their pain and discomfort in doing so. [National Bureau of Economic Research, August 2006

National Bureau Of Economic Research: “Disability Insurance Beneficiaries” With Mental And Musculoskeletal Disorders “Experience Relatively Long Durations On The Program.” The National Bureau of Economic Research also explained that the increased number of individuals receiving disability benefits for mental and musculoskeletal disorders was due to “an early onset and low age-specific mortality” of those disorders, not increased levels of improper payments:

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]

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

Bureau Of Labor Statistics: Unemployment Rate 6.2 Percent Higher Among People With A Disability. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for persons with a disability was 13.5 percent in September 2012, while it was only 7.3 percent for the non-disabled. [Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10/5/12]

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 Times, 3/24/12]

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 Times, 10/20/12]

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 10/26/12]

The Affordable Care Act May Help Reduce Burden On Those With Disabilities

NY Times: “The Affordable Care Act May Eventually Ease The Burden For Some Individuals With Disabilities.” The New York Times reported that the Affordable Care Act “may eventually ease the burden for some individuals with disabilities, namely those who rely on Medicaid through the S.S.I. program, by eliminating exclusions based on pre-existing conditions and annual or lifetime benefits caps.” [The New York Times, 10/20/12]

NBC: Affordable Care Act Will “Alleviate” Issues By Giving “Access To Less Expensive Health Coverage Despite Their Pricey Pre-Existing Conditions.” NBC News reported that the Affordable Care Act gives people with disabilities access to less expensive health care, which could “alleviate” the financial problems that lead many to apply for federal disability benefits:

The Affordable Care Act passed under the Obama administration will help alleviate one issue for people in these circumstances, if it stays in effect. That's because it will give them access to less expensive health coverage despite their pricey pre-existing conditions.

Those provisions of the health care act are scheduled to take effect in 2014, but they could be delayed or defunded if Mitt Romney beats Barack Obama in the presidential election next month. [NBC News, 10/26/12]