A Washington Post profile of a struggling low-income family painted what the Center for American Progress called a “dystopian portrait” of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program and its recipients. The negative framing of the disabled echoed misleading portrayals commonly promoted by right-wing media.
The in-depth March 30 article used a low-income family in rural Alabama as a proxy for rural communities around the country that have become increasingly dependent on the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program over the past two decades. Unfortunately, the Post’s profile of the state of disability in the United States pushed a number of misleading characterizations of SSDI and its recipients that are commonly peddled by right-wing media outlets when they target the social safety net:
- The article stated disability usage “has surged … from 7.7 million to 13 million” since 1996, failing to provide context for how SSDI recipients compare to a population of well over 320 million while glossing over the predictable demographic trends responsible for the uptick.
- The Post neglected to mention that only 13 million out of more than 53 million American adults living with a disability actually receive benefits from SSDI.
- The article highlighted the raw amount of money the federal government projects to spend on SSDI this year ($192 billion) without contextualizing that sum as a proportion of overall federal spending (less than 5 percent).
- The article manufactured a false dichotomy between “the severely disabled,” who obviously cannot work for a living, and supposedly “murkier” cases where enrolling in SSDI “is a decision to effectively abandon working altogether” by an otherwise able-bodied person.
- The article followed a man, Desmond Spencer, who suffers from chronic pain resulting from on-the-job injuries accumulated through a career in manual labor, but it focused on the shame he feels at the thought of applying for SSDI without considering if he might actually qualify for assistance.
- The article continually juxtaposed Spencer’s difficulty in finding gainful employment with his struggle over applying for SSDI, even though being unemployed for nonmedical reasons is not a criterion for the program.
- The article scrupulously detailed unhealthful daily habits of several SSDI recipients -- smoking and drinking soda -- that are typical behaviors for tens of millions of Americans but often portrayed as wasteful when they are done by individuals receiving government benefits.
Rebecca Vallas of the Center for American Progress chided the Post for creating a “dystopian portrait where Social Security disability benefits represent out-of-control government spending riddled with rampant abuse.” Vallas wrote that qualification for the program is actually “incredibly hard” and linked to July 2014 testimony from the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, which explained that aging Baby Boomers, natural population growth, and women entering the workforce are primarily responsible for increased disability usage. Most importantly, Vallas concluded her response by noting that narratives similar to that published by the Post have been used in the past by conservative opponents of safety net programs.
A response from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) analyst Kathleen Romig hit the Post’s write-up of SSDI for focusing so intently on “an atypical case: a young applicant in a county with an unusually high share of disability beneficiaries.” Romig also noted that it’s misleading to conflate absence of local job opportunities with a spike in disability cases because applicants must “prove that they can’t earn substantial wages anywhere across the economy — regardless of whether such work exists where they live.”
A March 31 statement from the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD) added even more critical context missing from the Post’s report, including statistics detailing the strict standards for SSDI, the high likelihood that recipients are dealing with a terminal illness, and the fact that the number of people receiving benefits through SSDI has “level[ed] off and is projected to decline further in the coming years.”
The pitfalls and blind spots bedeviling the Post’s foray into disability coverage are nothing new. In 2013, NPR’s Planet Money and All Things Considered and WBEZ’s This American Life promoted an error-riddled story using anecdotal evidence to portray disability recipients as grifters gaming the system. Months later, CBS News’ 60 Minutes aired a similarly misleading report, which falsely claimed SSDI is “ravaged by waste and fraud” and promoted biased research produced by partisan opponents seeking to gut the program.
The Post’s mischaracterization of SSDI as a seemingly simple way for low-income Americans to secure a source of income is the kind of misinformation disability advocates have come to expect from Fox News, which has spent years attacking the program and its recipients.