Sunday night, CBS’ 60 Minutes aired a piece they dubbed “Disability, USA” in which they portrayed the Social Security disability programs as exploding over the last few years and in danger of running out of funds. We’re deeply concerned that to press the panic button on the funding stream for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is irresponsible, and we’re saddened to see 60 Minutes join other national media in perpetrating myths and inaccuracies.
Members of The Arc and the individuals and families we serve know Social Security is an essential lifeline that keeps millions of Americans with significant disabilities from homelessness and deep poverty. About 1 in 5 Americans live with a disability, and this report failed to show the importance these programs play in many of their lives.
It’s disappointing to see reporting that puts people who rely on these programs to survive on edge, when the truth is much less sensational but also much more interesting. Here are three important facts to keep in mind:
1. It’s incredibly difficult to qualify for Social Security disability benefits. The Social Security Act’s disability standard is one of the strictest in the developed world. Fewer than four in ten applicants are approved, even after all stages of appeal. Many are terminally ill: 1 in 5 male SSDI beneficiaries and nearly 1 in 6 female SSDI beneficiaries die within 5 years of receiving benefits. Due to the complexity of the process, many people who appeal seek help from an attorney or representative who is paid by the claimant out of past-due benefits – not out of the Disability Insurance Trust Fund, as suggested by 60 Minutes. As noted by the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, the fee process for Social Security claims is highly regulated and the average fee in most cases is less than $3,000.
2. For those of us paying attention, the growth in Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is not surprising – in fact, it has been projected since 1994. According to Social Security’s Chief Actuary, the growth in SSDI (from 1980 to 2010) is mostly the result of several factors: substantial growth in the U.S. population; the baby boomers aging into their high-disability years; and women entering the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s so that more are now “insured” for SSDI based on their own prior contributions.
3. The DI trust fund will need to be replenished in 2016 – but this is not a new development, or an unprecedented one. Since Social Security was enacted, Congress has “reallocated” payroll tax revenues between the OASI (retirement) and DI (disability) trust funds – about equally in both directions – some 11 times to account for demographic shifts. In 1994, the last time such reallocation occurred, SSA actuaries accurately projected that similar action would next be required in 2016.
The 60 Minutes program also reported on fraud in the system that occurred in West Virginia and Kentucky. The Social Security Administration – and advocacy organizations like The Arc – takes fraud very seriously because it harms the millions of honest people who rely on the program as a lifeline to basic necessities, and it hurts the integrity of the program. Anytime you suspect fraud is occurring, you can contact the SSA hotline at 1-800-269-0271 or report it online. We all want to root out the bad actors and focus the program on those that need it most – people with disabilities who without the SSA, would be homeless, hungry, and cut off from access to life saving medicines and services. But it’s also important to keep in mind that most experts agree that fraud is very rare. Former SSA Commissioner Michael J. Astrue, appointed by President George W. Bush, estimates that fraud constitutes less than 1 percent of all applicants.
Finally, we believe that resources are vital to ensuring that SSA can properly administer its disability programs. The continued impact of underfunding has had serious implications, including limiting the agency’s ability to perform vital watchdog functions. And the current government shutdown is having even more dramatic effects.
Here are some additional resources for learning more about the facts on the Social Security disability programs:
- The LA Times’ Michael Hiltzik’s take on the 60 Minutes coverage
- Media Matters review of the 60 Minutes story
- “Just the Facts,” from the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities
- “Policy Basics” on SSDI, and much more, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
- “How Important is SSDI to U.S. Workers,” from the Urban Institute
- A brief on SSDI and options for shoring up its long-term financing, from the National Academy on Social Insurance