A furor is raging – as it should, over an NPR series on Social Security disability programs that does a grave injustice to the millions of Americans who live with disabilities. The series, “Unfit for Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America,” and an accompanying This American Life episode, is inaccurate and incomplete, perpetuating dangerous stereotypes. It mistakenly represents disability status as something that people want because it is a good “deal,” suggests that parents might hold back a child academically to keep their disability benefits, and questions whether people who “look healthy” ought to be receiving disability benefits. It sounds the alarm about skyrocketing increases in those receiving benefits, but fails to report on the demographic trends driving that growth, or the fact that once these factors play out, the programs are projected to decline in coming years. Because of these and other mischaracterizations, I thought I would try to give you some of the facts as we see them at NYLAG.
NYLAG attorneys work to ensure that eligible disabled people receive benefits under the Social Security Disability Insurance Program, which provides income supplements to people who have contributed enough in payroll taxes to be eligible if they become disabled before reaching retirement age, and under the Supplemental Security Income Program, which helps low-income disabled children and adults to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. We know only too well the challenges the disabled face, and the vital need for these programs. Whether you have seen or plan to see the NPR series, here are six points to consider.
1. These programs provide vital support to millions of disabled Americans, but that support is far from a windfall for those who receive it. It is a lifeline keeping millions of people from deep poverty and homelessness.
2. It’s not easy to qualify for disability benefits. We know because we represent clients who are eligible, and more than half are denied initially, and require an appeal. The rules are strict, and only the most severely impaired qualify.
3. The expense of caring for a child with a disability can be crushing. The income support from the Supplemental Security Income Program makes it possible for many children to remain at home with their families instead of needing to be in an institution to receive their care.
4. There is not a direct correlation between a child’s academic performance and the loss of benefits. In fact, the Supplemental Security Income Program helps families to access services that support educational development.
5. Just because someone looks healthy does not mean she is healthy. Today the leading causes of disability both in the U.S. and around the world are largely invisible: mental illness and musculoskeletal disorders such as carpel tunnel syndrome and other labor-related injuries.
6. Demographics, not lenient disability standards, account for the large increase in the Social Security rolls – trends like aging baby boomers, more women in the workforce, and Social Security’s rising retirement age.
I am a big fan of NPR, and most of the time I think they do a great job of reporting on complex and sensitive issues in a way that is balanced and fair. But this time they got it wrong.
Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge