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What We Talk About When We Talk About Disability Benefits

In early October, “60 Minutes” aired a segment on the United States’ disability program. In many ways it was a “hatchet job,” as “The Nation” put it. The 14-minute segment, which suggested widespread fraud on the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), relied on the opinions of a handful of judges, lawyers and Social Security administrators who claimed that only around 50 percent of those currently receiving SSDI really need it. The story also cited a dubious study by the staff of conservative Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn. With an excessively narrow and statistically unsound sample size of “hundreds of files” and unstated criteria as determinants of “questionable” applications, his staff found the figure of those recipients who are “undeserving” at 45 percent.

disability“The Nation” also criticized a similar story by Chana Joffe-Walt of “This American Life,” but in so doing, they failed to see that Joffe-Walt’s story was far from the one constructed by Steve Kroft for “60 Minutes.” Joffe-Walt’s portrait of the situation is this: citizens who have had limited education are put into labor-intensive jobs that wear away at their bodies. Their jobs are likely part-time and without benefits, and once it becomes too difficult to perform the menial, repetitive task that is demanded, there is no other recourse. Every other job on the market offers an equally miserable salary while demanding a certain amount of labor that is too taxing for them. There is no potential for upward mobility out of this situation with the lukewarm economic recovery failing to trickle down to them.

Hence the massive influx of people who get on SSDI and the stern talking heads on “60 Minutes” who decry the phenomenon—“if there’s any job in the economy that you can perform, you are not eligible for disability.” Such statements suggest that some people on disability are simply looking to retire early. Joffe-Walt’s point is that there are populations in the country whose employability must be understood on terms radically different from those of the middle class. The problem for many people is not so much that other jobs would worsen their already-frail bodies, but rather that alternative forms of employment options are simply not an option.

While Kroft’s “60 Minutes” story, unlike Joffe-Walt’s, emphasizes that there are people using SSDI who are ‘undeserving’ of disability benefits, “The Nation” approaches both stories by trying to argue that there has actually been no significant growth in the number of SSDI recipients. An independent look at available statistics, however, indicates that the significant increase in SSDI recipients that underlies both Kroft and Joffe-Walt’s stories is not an analytical stretch. The surge of people receiving benefits can be illustrated in various statistics. Between 1998 and 2012, applications for disability insurance have almost tripled from 1.1 million to 2.8 million. In addition, the scale of growth is undeniable. The number of people on disabilities has doubled every 15 years since the 1980s. Even between 2009 and 2011 there was significant growth with the number disability insurance recipients increasing from 8.9 million people in 2009 to 9.8 million in 2011. On top of this, the share of adults aged 25 to 64 on SSDI has risen from 2.2 percent in 1985 to 4.1 percent in 2005.

In its rebuttal to Kroft and Joffe-Walt’s stories, “The Nation” sources every single point from a fact sheet released by the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities. These involve statistics showing that the proportion of applicants who eventually receive benefits does not seem alarming. Two-thirds are denied the first time and the final award rate is 45 percent. It is also explains that the demographic impact of the baby-boomers might be responsible for higher numbers of SSDI recipients. In addition to over-relying on one source, these statistics fail to rebut the scale of growth in both the applicants and recipients noted above. The final conclusion of the piece, verbalized by a representative from the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, is that anecdotal evidence of the ‘misuse’ of disabilities benefits is an unfair characterization based on “a few bad apples.”

Still, Joffe-Walt’s story does not draw a portrait of “a few bad apples” draining the system, but rather of an economic shift that is redefining what it actually means to be disabled to a specific demographic of Americans. Her hypothesis is that people are not just suffering from a momentary crunch in the economy; rather, their education (or lack thereof) precludes them from anything but labor-intensive jobs. Among those she talks to in Hale County, Alabama, she finds a woman whose ideal job would be to work as a Social Security administrator, because there “she gets to sit.” This is the only desk job the woman can think of on the spot. Another man, upon being asked to think of a job that would not involve his hands, suggests mashing grapes since you get to use your feet instead. Job listings in Hale County are filled with positions for fast-food restaurants, nursing, and truck driving. These are the job prospects for somebody who might have completed high school, but with something so seemingly trivial as back pain, they are impossible.

Whereas “60 Minutes” relies on sources that disdain SSDI recipients, and “The Nation” regurgitates facts from an interest group that turns a blind eye to the situation as a whole, Joffe-Walt from “This American Life” actually listens to those at the center of this entire controversy. Yet Joffe-Walt seems almost unaware of the full implications of her reporting when she makes the moral of the story a lamentation about the people with “no other option,” stuck in the mire of disability insurance. She notes they will not “interact with coworkers, get promoted, make more money, get whatever meaning people get from work,” but instead join a system that will not provide any sort of incentive or rehab until “you move on to […] Social Security for seniors, or you die.” Bleak as this sounds, the bigger and more salient moral of the story comes in the form of a cautionary tale for armchair pundits of the upper and middle classes.

From Joffe-Walt’s perspective, jobs are the fulfilling ideal of a happy, productive human. Maybe this optimistic zeal is true to a certain degree—for middle class workers who can find employment that provides more than the minimum means of financial subsistence. Joffe-Walt embodies the middle and upper-middle class perception that employment can offer something fulfilling for the individual, but this conception of employment and productivity has nothing to do with the reality for our poorest citizens. So divorced are we from the most severely disadvantaged of our country that we can hardly imagine a person whose only job prospects mostly require them to stand all day or regularly lift heavy objects.

The concept feels antiquated. An underclass that works until their body is too worn to do the only job available to them. A significant number of people who never got enough education to qualify them for low-level desk jobs. But that extreme stratification does exist. Is our disability insurance system the victim of massive fraud? A discussion of the lawyers who benefit from securing benefits for clients merits some concern, but the beneficiaries themselves, who get an annual income of around $13,000 are not exactly running the most lucrative scam. Leveling this accusation at the beneficiaries presumes that there are people who actively seek out a lifestyle where days in which insurance checks arrive are the only time any significant shopping can be done.

For all their presumably good intentions, “The Nation” and the spokesperson from the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities are speaking over these people just as loudly as the sources in Kroft’s report for “60 Minutes.” It is understandable to jump to the defense of people with disabilities, but in so doing, they avoid the larger implications of the phenomenon.

That there are citizens who would get enraged by the portrait of worn-down and jobless workers gaining relief from the social welfare system is an unfortunate reality of the current political climate. Everybody else, who considers themselves open-minded and an advocate for the downtrodden, has to realize how fundamentally disconnected they are from the world they profess to represent. Sometimes it is important to quiet down for a moment and dignify the voices of the destitute with your unbroken attention.

About the Author

Athena Bryan, 2015.5, is a history concentrator.