Disability advocates hammered The Washington Post for its second misleading portrayal of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) recipients, saying it was a “mean-spirited” and “cartoonish” illustration of the struggles of those living with poverty in rural America. The second feature-length profile published by the Post has drawn consternation for its poverty-shaming, while also generating fears that these misleading depictions from mainstream news outlets could set the pretext for draconian budget cuts to programs that provide basic economic security to millions of Americans.
The Post’s previous foray into coverage of SSDI recipients did not end well; Media Matters joined disability advocates in criticizing the paper’s “dystopian portrait” of the program and its enrollees and was later found to be replete with critical data errors. The piece promoted the same misleading talking points about the program that are commonly touted by right-wing media. Despite these concerns, the Post’s editorial board used the deeply flawed article as its proof for justifying unnecessary cuts to the SSDI program.
The paper’s June 2 article in its series on disability coverage is just as misleading and problematic as the first. The article, titled “Generations, disabled,” attempts to chronicle the trials of a low-income Missouri family that relies on meager SSDI benefits. The article relied almost exclusively on anecdotal evidence drawn from the Tidwell family to buttress characterizations of SSDI and its recipients as succumbing to multi-generational dependence on federal assistance.
The article earnestly focused on the fact that one or more members of four generations of Tidwells have received federal assistance and detailed their daily routines in a way that political scientist Katherine Gallagher Robbins of the Center for American Progress (CAP) likened to the depictions of poverty and disability in Of Mice and Men. As CAP’s Rebecca Vallas pointed out in her damning review, “the article’s text makes no mention” of the fact “that disability often runs in families” and neglects to mention that disability benefits are “incredibly hard to get.”
The Post seemed to depict generational disability as a cultural problem, but as Annie Lowrey of The Atlantic pointed out, the article never provided any data to prove this or demonstrate that multiple generations of a family receiving SSDI is evidence of them being undeserving. Vox correspondent Matthew Yglesias voiced even stronger criticism, labeling the article as “incredibly mean-spirited” and “smack[ing] of the worst kind of moral panic.”
Issues with the Post’s story didn’t end there. In a June 5 column published by The Poynter Institute, journalist S.I. Rosenbaum added that the article misled readers by claiming to describe a family “on disability” without ever verifying that the Tidwell family are indeed all receiving benefits from SSDI, rather than other anti-poverty programs.
The generally exploitative tone of the piece was not the primary problem with the Post’s return to the topic of disability. The biggest problem created by the piece is how it could be used by political interests seeking to implement deep cuts to the American social safety net.
As Vallas pointed out in her response, by “pushing the nastiest of myths about Social Security disability benefits and the people who rely on them,” the Post set the pretext for budget cuts that will restrict access to the program. The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities voiced the same concern, arguing that “reporting by anecdote runs the risk of fostering harmful policy changes” such as those already proposed by the Trump administration. Economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) came to a similar conclusion, mocking the Post’s “poetic description” of farming jobs available in rural Missouri, which suggested that disability recipients simply refuse to work those jobs. Baker added that the United States actually has one of the least generous disability programs in the world, but countries with more generous programs are not suffering labor shortages:
The obvious next segment in this series would have a Post reporter going to Germany or the Netherlands or some of the other countries that manages to have a larger percentage of their population working even though they have considerably more generous disability systems. The article can tell readers how they manage to structure their programs so that everyone doesn't quit their jobs and fake disability so that they can live off the government. For some reason, I don't think this is where the Post series is going.
We have already seen a Post report on SSDI result in the paper’s editorial board calling for unnecessary cuts to the program in a way eerily reminiscent to Fox News’ campaign against the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which immediately resulted in Republican-authored legislation in Congress slashing the program and eventually trickled down to GOP-led state houses. The Trump administration is already targeting Social Security’s disability program for budget cuts next year and media outlets have largely failed to hold the president accountable for an obviously broken campaign promise to safeguard Social Security. The American people would be well-served if, rather than publishing more dehumanizing portrayals of disability recipients, the Post and other news outlets contextualize the hardship millions of Americans would face if SSDI and other vital programs are subjected to new cuts and restrictions.