This American Life Features Error-Riddled Story On Disability And Children

NPR's All Things Considered Also Promoted Story

Public radio program This American Life pushed a series of myths about Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI), a Social Security program that supports families that include children with disabilities. The piece ignored that the recent rise in disability benefits is tied to the recession and higher rates of poverty, that qualifying for benefits is difficult, that SSI encourages employment, and that the current program has significantly reduced poverty among children with disabilities.

MYTH: Rising Number Of Disability Claims Tied To Families Using Children To “Pull” Benefits

Planet Money: “What You Want Is A Kid Who Can 'Pull A Check.'” In a segment 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 -- contributor Chana Joffe-Walt explained that the number of people receiving disability insurance had increased because a group of individuals in a small town told her that they look to children to “pull a check”:

I started hearing about another group of people on disability: kids. People in Hale County told me that what you want is a kid who can “pull a check.” Many people mentioned this, but I basically ignored it. It seemed like one of those things that maybe happened once or twice, got written up in the paper and became conversational fact among neighbors. I found that the number of kids on a program called Supplemental Security Income -- a program for children and adults who are both poor and disabled -- is almost seven times larger than it was 30 years ago. [NPR, Planet Money, 3/22/13]

FACT: Increased Child Poverty And The Recession Account For Rise In Benefits

Center On Budget And Policy Priorities: Number Of Children Receiving SSI Benefits Rising Due To Higher Rate Of Child Poverty And Prolonged Economic Downturn. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) found that the number of children receiving SSI benefits was not “mushrooming,” due in part to the higher rate of child poverty and 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. [CBPP, 12/14/12]

Center For Economic And Policy Research: Increase In Child Poverty Made More Children With Disabilities Financially Eligible For Benefits. A report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that the “Increase In Child Poverty Since 2000 Has Made More Children With Disabilities Financially Eligible For SSI Benefits,” because in order to be eligible for SSI benefits,families have to meet certain financial need requirements:

The report included the following graph:

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

MYTH: Children Who Only Perform Poorly In School Can Receive Benefits

Planet Money: For Kids, “A Disability Can Be Anything That Prevents You From Progressing In School.” Joffe-Walt claimed,“When you are a kid, a disability can be anything that prevents you from progressing in school”:

When you are an adult applying for disability you have to prove you cannot function in a “work-like setting.” When you are a kid, a disability can be anything that prevents you from progressing in school. Two-thirds of all kids on the program today have been diagnosed with mental or intellectual problems. [NPR, Planet Money, 3/22/13]

FACT: Medical Evidence From Qualified Professionals Is Required To Determine Eligibility

Government Accountability Office: “Examiners Rely On A Combination Of Key Medical And Nonmedical Information Sources.” A Government Accountability Office report found that disability determination services (DDS) examiners determined a child's medical eligibility for benefits based on a combination of school records and medical records, and that if medical records in particular were not available, they were able to order consultative exams to review medical evidence:

DDS examiners rely on a combination of key medical and nonmedical information sources -- such as medical records, effects of prescribed medications, school records, and teacher and parent assessments -- in determining a child's medical eligibility for benefits. Several DDS officials we interviewed said that when making a determination, they consider the totality of information related to the child's impairments, rather than one piece of information in isolation. Based on our case file review, we estimate that examiners generally cited four to five information sources as support for their decisions in fiscal year 2010 for the three most prevalent mental impairments.


If such evidence is not available or is inconclusive, DDS examiners may purchase a consultative exam to provide additional medical evidence and help them establish the severity of a child's impairment. [Government Accountability Office, 6/26/12]

The Nation: “Qualified Medical Professionals Must Submit Evidence.” The Nation's Greg Kaufmann blogged a list of facts about Social Security Insurance, noting that "[a] child's impairments must match a list of disabling conditions compiled by the Social Security Administration (SSA). Qualified medical professionals must submit evidence; statements by parents and teachers aren't enough." [The Nation12/14/12]

FACT: Strict Requirements Mean Only 1 In 4 Children With Disabilities Receive Benefits

Center For American Progress: "The Vast Majority Of Children With Disabilities Do Not Qualify For Supplemental Security." A Center for American Progress (CAP) report found that only 1.6 percent of U.S. children receive Social Security benefits, despite the fact that about nine percent of children have “activity limitations that result from one or more chronic health conditions,” and found that this gap is due to the “stringent definition of disability” used by the Social Security Administration:

In the United States, about 6.6 million -- or 9 percent -- of school-age children have activity limitations that result from one or more chronic health conditions. Despite that being the case, only about 1.3 million -- or 1.6 percent -- of U.S. children receive Supplemental Security Income benefits. The vast majority of children with disabilities do not qualify for Supplemental Security either because their disabilities are not severe enough to meet the Social Security Administration's strict standards or their families do not meet the program's financial eligibility criteria.

Under the Social Security Administration's definition of childhood disability, a child may qualify for Supplemental Security if she or he has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that results in marked and severe functional limitations and if she or he lives in a household with very low-income and less than $3,000 in assets. According to a 2012 Government Accountability Office report, the Social Security Administration has consistently denied a majority of children's application for Supplemental Security over the past decade, using this stringent definition of disability. [CAP, 9/10/12]

National Academy Of Social Insurance: “Fewer Than 1 In 4 Children With Disabilities” Received Benefits In August 2012.According to a report from the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI), a nonpartisan policy center, “fewer than 1 in 4 children with disabilities” received benefits in August 2012, largely due to the “strict disability standard”:

About 1.3 million low-income children with disabilities -- fewer than 1 in 4 children with disabilities -- received SSI in August 2012. This relatively low number is mostly due to SSI's means-test and strict disability standard. Recent research finds that SSI increases family economic security, reduces reliance on food stamps and other means-tested assistance, and does not reduce parental employment. Even during the Great Recession, nearly half of children on SSI had a working parent. Because SSI is gradually reduced as parents' earnings increase, the program supports work among families with disabled children. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of children assisted by SSI increased from 847,000 to 1.3 million. The increase is due almost exclusively to an increase in the number of low-income children as their parents lost jobs and earnings during the Great Recession. Federal expenditures on SSI for children are projected to decline as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) going forward. [NASI, November 2012]

MYTH: Disability Benefits Encourage Families Not To Work

Planet Money: If A Child Is Removed From Benefits System, “It Would Threaten His Family's Livelihood.” Joffe-Walt claimed that if a certain child, named Jahleel, overcame his disability, it would “threaten his family's livelihood,” and further claimed that adults encouraged working less to maintain benefits:

Jahleel starts doing better in school, overcomes some of his disabilities. He doesn't need the disability program anymore. That would seem to be great for everyone, except for one thing. It would threaten his family's livelihood. Jahleel's family survives off the monthly $700 check they get for his disability.

Jahleel's mom wants him to do well in school. That is absolutely clear. But her livelihood depends on Jahleel struggling in school. This tension only increases as kids get older. One mother told me her teenage son wanted to work, but she didn't want him to get a job because if he did, the family would lose its disability check. [NPR, Planet Money, 3/22/13]

FACT: Disability Benefits Incentivize Work

CAP: Receiving Benefits Incentivizes Work And Education And “Does Not Reduce Parental Employment.” The Center for American Progress cited research from economists Mark Duggan and Melissa Schettini Kearney that found “receiving Supplemental Security does not reduce parental employment” and provides incentives for employment and education:

[Supplemental Security] Supports and encourages work and education for parents and disabled youth: As mentioned above, Supplemental Security plays an important role as a work- and education-support program for parents of disabled children and for youth with disabilities. Although many parents of severely disabled children need to limit employment to focus on their children's daily needs, Duggan and Kearney have found that receiving Supplemental Security does not reduce parental employment. Duggan and Kearney also found that the average earnings of households with children receiving Supplemental Security were about twice as high as the average earnings of households with children receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits. As discussed later in greater detail, this is due in part to the incentives Supplemental Security provides for employment and education. [CAP, 9/10/12, emphasis original]

CBPP: System Encourages Parents “To Work More.” A CBPP fact-sheet on Social Security Insurance and Children with Disabilities found that “SSI has two features intended to encourage parents to work more”:

SSI is designed to try to avoid discouraging work. Rather than having an inflexible income limit -- and terminating a child's benefits once a parent's earnings pass it -- or taking away a dollar in benefits for each added dollar that a parent earns, SSI has two features intended to encourage parents to work more. First, SSI counts half, rather than all, of a parent's earnings when gauging a child's eligibility and benefit level. Second, SSI rules assume that some portion of a parent's earnings may be needed to support other family members, not just the disabled child, so that if a parent goes to work or increases the numbers of hours worked, that has a smaller effect on the SSI benefits -- and hence the added work yields a substantial net increase in the family's income. One-third of child recipients in single-parent households, and two-thirds of those in two-parent families, have a working parent. [CBPP, 12/14/12]

MYTH: Current System Does Not Help Children With Disabilities

Planet Money“The Disability Program Stands In Opposition” To Supporting Children With Disabilities In Poverty. Joffe-Walt concluded that while a majority of Americans support “some form of government support for disabled children living in poverty,” 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 Money, 3/22/13]

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

CAP: SSI "Reduces Poverty And Increases Economic Security." The Center for American Progress cited research from economists Mark Duggan and Melissa Schettini Kearney which found that receiving 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. [CAP, 9/10/12, emphasis original]

National Bureau Of Economic Research: SSI Reduces The Chance A Child Lives In Poverty By 11 Percent. The National Bureau of Economic Research 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]

NASI: “Families Raising Children With Disabilities Experience Higher Rates Of Economic Hardship.” 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, November 2012]

To get the facts on federal disability benefits for adults, click here and here.