This American Life Criticized For Defending Misleading Disability Benefits Report

This American Life host Ira Glass has been called out by the Center for Economic and Policy Research for citing data with “limited relevance to contemporary policy debates” to defend his misleading report on disability benefits.

Last week, Media Matters detailed how the report, which was also featured on the NPR programs Planet Money and All Things Considered, pushed a series of myths about Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) -- a Social Security program that supports families that include children with disabilities -- over the program's growth rate, qualification challenges, and successes it has had in reducing poverty among children with disabilities. The report was quickly picked up by right-wing media outlets who used it to advance the false claim that increased disability benefits indicate fraud in the system.

Following harsh criticism that the report presented a false picture of disability programs Glass stood by the story, saying in a statement to the International Business Times that “our report on disability programs was fact checked line by line by an outside fact checker, in addition to fact checking by the reporter and her editors” and "[w]e know of no factual errors. We stand by the story."

Now, CEPR Senior Research Associate Shawn Fremstad has taken issue with Glass' defense of the report, writing that Glass is trying to defend his initial report by telling a story about SSI that has “limited relevance to contemporary policy debates”:

Finally, Glass takes issue with an analysis that I did with Rebecca Vallas, one cited by Media Matters, showing that the recent rise in the number of children with severe disabilities receiving Supplemental Security benefits is largely due to economic factors. Glass says: “They [Media Matters] choose data from 2000-2009 to back up that claim.... As we point out in our reporting, when you look at a longer period of time -- at 30 years of economic data -- you see a different story.”

But neither Glass nor Joffe-Walt say what that “different story” actually is. Vallas and I have focused -- for example in this paper for the National Academy of Social Insurance -- on the trends over roughly the last 15 years because Supplemental Security's eligibility standards for children have been stable since then (the figure below is from this paper). Before that SSA's eligibility standards for children were expanded (in 1990 by a conservative Supreme Court that ruled 7-2 that SSA's regulations were much stricter than the underlying federal law) and then pared back somewhat (by Congress in 1996 after the Gingrich Revolution). In telling the story of Supplemental Security today, the primary focus should be on trends from recent history that represent a mature, stable program. If reporters want to also tell the story of the implementation and early history of children's SSI, that's fine, but they should be clear it is a much different story that has limited relevance to contemporary policy debates. They should also go back and read this 1995 Forbes Media Critic piece, “Media Crusade Gone Haywire,” detailing the role that dubious sources and anecdotes fed the last major round of media hysteria on this issue.