Disability advocates hammered a faulty feature article published last month in The Washington Post that portrayed disability insurance as a form of long-term unemployment insurance in rural communities and claimed that as many as a third of people in those communities received disability assistance. Advocates analyzed the article’s data and found that the Post had vastly overstated the number of people receiving assistance on the program, prompting the paper to issue a correction. That correction, however, ignores the article’s more devastating flaws.
The Post’s March 30 article titled, “Disabled, or just desperate?” followed Alabama resident Desmond Spencer and his family as they struggled to make ends meet and narrated his unease about applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. The piece cited data purportedly provided by the Social Security Administration to argue that Spencer’s condition was typical of working-aged adults in rural communities around the country. A Media Matters analysis of the actual content found that it was filled with tropes, gimmicks, and dog whistles frequently promoted by right-wing opponents of SSDI. Disability advocates questioned the portrayal of a single anecdotal account as representative of millions of Americans, and Rebecca Vallas of the Center for American Progress (CAP) slammed the Post for creating a “dystopian portrait” of an SSDI system “riddled with rampant abuse.”
A week after publishing the initial report, the Post’s editorial board cited the flawed article as part of its case in favor of unnecessary “reforms” of the disability insurance system that would add even more restrictions to SSDI. Media Matters again criticized the Post for mischaracterizing the program and peddling myths about the social safety net common in conservative media. Economist Dean Baker also browbeat the editorial for targeting a program that helps provide basic living standards at a time of rampant economic inequality.
The core argument forwarded by the initial Post report was that as many as one-third of working-age adults in rural communities are reliant on SSDI for most or all of their monthly income. Yet, the paper did not acknowledge whether or not these people are actually disabled. Instead, the article wove a narrative of low-income Americans struggling to find gainful work who end up on disability as a form of long-term unemployment. An April 13 blog published by CAP outlined how analysts attempted “to replicate [the Post’s] analysis” only to find that “their numbers are flat-out wrong.” After a careful inspection, CAP discovered that the Post’s numbers overcounted the number of children and working-age adults receiving SSDI, and failed to correct for the double-counting of roughly 1.3 million people. CAP even uncovered that the paper was missing data entirely for nearly 100 of the “rural counties” the article was supposed to be analyzing. In response to the these revelations, the editors responsible for the Post’s report issued a lengthy correction to the article and updated it throughout to remove and amend data.
In an April 18 blog post, the team at CAP noted that the fixes still didn’t go far enough since more accurate data actually disproved the Post’s core argument. The revised and corrected report is still built on questionable data and it continues overcounting the number of working-age adults reliant on disability insurance. Most importantly, the core claim that disability checks are a primary source of income for “as many as one-third of working-age adults” in rural communities encompassing “large swaths of the country” appears to be completely false; CAP’s team could find only one county -- out of 3,143 -- that fit the Post’s dystopian description of disability. From the Center For American Progress’s TalkPoverty.org (emphasis added):
Even using The Post’s flawed methods, they were only able to find one county—out of more than 3,100 counties nationwide—where the story’s central claim that “as many as one-third of working-age adults are receiving monthly disability checks” holds up. Not a single other county even comes close. In fact, The Post’s own analysis—which it has now made available in a public data file next to the story, yields an average rate of about 9.1 percent of working-age adults receiving benefits across rural counties—just three percentage points higher than the national average.
And yet the article is framed as follows: “Across large swaths of the country,” the article still reads, “disability has become a force that has reshaped scores of mostly white, almost exclusively rural communities, where as many as one-third of working-age adults are receiving monthly disability checks.”
If by “large swaths” and “scores of… rural communities” The Post means McDowell County, West Virginia, population less than 21,000 residents—and nowhere else in America—then sure.
But the fact is there’s a word for using data this way: cherry-picking.