GOP Justifies Weakening Social Security Disability Program Using Right-Wing Media's Smears

Congressional Republicans are borrowing from years of right-wing media attacks on federal disability benefits to justify their recent attempt to snarl funding for Social Security programs.

On January 6, Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a change to legislative rules that restricts the historically routine transfer of tax money from the Social Security retirement fund to the Social Security disability program. Such transfers have helped keep both Social Security programs solvent. In practice, the rule change makes these reallocations nearly impossible by requiring that they be “accompanied by 'benefit cuts or tax increases that improve the solvency of both funds.' ” As the Los Angeles Times' Michael Hiltzik explained, because the disability fund is on track to “run dry as early as next year,” this could mean “disability benefits for 11 million beneficiaries would have to be cut 20%.”

In a January 6 statement justifying the rule change, Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX) called the disability program  “fraud-plagued.” And during a January 14 event in New Hampshire on the long-term future of safety-net programs, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) claimed many who receive disability benefits are “gaming the system” and downplayed disabilities, saying, “over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts. Join the club.” 

These officials' demonization of disability beneficiaries and cries of fraud in the program mirror the rhetoric of many in the conservative media. For instance, in February 2013, Fox News' Shannon Bream suggested that 100 percent of disability beneficiaries collect benefits “under false pretenses.” And in 2012, Fox Business' Charles Payne referred to disability benefits by using the offensive term "crazy check," implying that people can pretend to have mental disabilities in order to receive benefits.

But as The Washington Post's Wonkblog noted, fraud in the program is very low (emphasis added):

Fraud appears limited to relatively few cases in the disability program, although it is difficult to know precisely how many beneficiaries could be working. A report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found that about 0.4 percent of disability beneficiaries were likely receiving improper payments, because they were working before or after they began receiving checks.

Despite suggestions to the contrary by the GOP and right-wing media, criteria for eligibility for disability insurance are strict, and more than half of all claims are denied, according to data from the Social Security Administration.