Yesterday, the Washington Post ran a story titled “Disabled or just desperate?” that painted a bleak picture of rural America. But rather than digging into what’s driving widespread unemployment and poor health in struggling rural counties, the article cherry-picks one of the counties with the highest rates of disability benefit receipt, to create a dystopian portrait where Social Security disability benefits represent out-of-control government spending riddled with rampant abuse.
Reality looks quite a bit different. As Shawn Fremstad and I have pointed out time and again, Social Security disability benefits are incredibly hard to get—fewer than 4 in 10 applicants are approved, even after all stages of appeal. To qualify for benefits, you must have one or more medically determinable physical or mental impairments expected to last at least 12 months, or to result in death. And many recipients do, in fact, die: 1 in 5 male and 1 in 6 female Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) beneficiaries die within 5 years of receiving benefits.
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But having a disability alone is not enough to qualify for benefits. You also have to prove that your impairment, or combination of impairments, leave you unable to do any job that exists in significant numbers in the national economy at a level where you could earn even $11,070 per year.
According to the Organisation for Economic Development, the United States has the most restrictive—and least generous—disability benefit system of all OECD member countries, apart from Korea. While some unemployed workers—like Desmond Spencer, whom the article profiles—may apply for disability benefits out of desperation as the article’s headline suggests, they’ll be left empty-handed if they don’t meet Social Security’s strict eligibility criteria. Consider the recent economic downturn. Application rates increased as unemployment rose, but approval rates dropped significantly as people who didn’t qualify were denied benefits. It’s also worth noting that the Post focuses on Spencer’s decision to apply for disability benefits—but ends there. What we’re not shown is him being denied, if and when he’s found not disabled enough to qualify.
The Post sidesteps the eligibility requirements for SSDI, and focuses on the recent increase in the number of people receiving benefits. But as the agency’s chief actuary has explained—and in fact predicted decades ago—the growth is mostly due to baby boomers aging into their high-disability years, women entering the workforce in greater numbers in the 1970s and 1980s (so now we are insured under Social Security in case of disability at nearly the same rates as men), and population growth. In fact, these three factors alone explain more than 90 percent of the increase in beneficiaries between 1970 and 2008.
Notably, the program’s growth has leveled off, slowing to its lowest rate in a quarter-century. It is projected to decline further in the coming years, as the baby boomers retire (a fact left out entirely by the Post).
Make no mistake, the Post’s article highlights a very real set of problems that call out for policymakers’ attention. For starters, the high rates of unemployment and pervasive economic hardship that plague rural communities, many of whose residents voted for Donald Trump in hopes that he would save or bring back their jobs. Then there is widespread lack of health insurance in rural areas. Spencer reports seeing his health decline following an injury he suffered on the job because “he’d never had health insurance.” It’s not a coincidence that he lives in Beaverton, Alabama—one of the states still refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
And third, there are the employment barriers many people with disabilities continue to face more than 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. They range from outright discrimination; to lack of affordable, accessible housing and transportation; to policies that allow disabled workers to be paid less than minimum wage. These inequities scream out for policies that would give workers with disabilities a fair shot, rather than blaming the lifeboat for the flood.
Unfortunately, the Washington Post’s storyline—long pushed by conservative critics of Social Security—has been a favorite of many in the media going back several years. Notably, NPR ran similar reporting back in 2012, which was widely debunked—including by a bipartisan group of eight former Social Security commissioners who teamed up to write an open letter correcting the record. But in large part because of misleading media coverage, many people are more familiar with myths about Social Security disability benefits—and beneficiaries—than they are with the facts.
This puts the people who rely on SSDI’s modest benefits at serious risk. While Trump has pledged not to cut Social Security, his budget director Mick Mulvaney has hardly been quiet about his intention to target Social Security Disability Insurance for cuts, portraying disability beneficiaries as less deserving than retirees.
Misleading media accounts that have made the disability beneficiary into the modern day “welfare queen” risk giving him cover to do just that.
Correction: The article originally stated that Lamar county is tied for the highest rate of disability benefit receipt. It is in the top 5% of the rural counties that the Washington Post analyzed.