Two weeks ago, NPR published a story about the rise in Social Security disability claims. The bottom line of the story is that unemployed people are choosing to go on SSDI because they have conditions that prevent them from doing physical labor and are not educated or qualified enough for desk jobs. According to this story, Social Security “has also become a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills.” This is a legitimate issue, but there was plenty to object to in the story and I fired off an email to NPR. Since then, criticism of the story has skyrocketed, and NPR’s minor revisions of the story have not stemmed the tide. Others have done great analyses of the story and its many errors, and a coalition of disability rights advocates sent a terrific letter to NPR (pdf link). Personally, I’m focused on a few comments by reporter Chana Joffe-Walt and the stereotypes those comments reinforce.
Joffe-Walt says that disability with Medicare could be a better deal than a minimum wage job with no healthcare. In the original version of the story, she said “it’s a deal 14 million Americans have chosen for themselves.” NPR has since revised the online text to read, “it’s a deal 14 million Americans have signed up for.” This is a distinction without a difference. Whether you use the verb “choose” or “sign up,” this is a statement that everyone on SSDI is there voluntarily. It’s the stereotype that disabled people are lazy slackers happy to live on the government dime.
I have a problem with that. I was forced to apply for, and now collect, Social Security disability. This was not anything that I chose. I got sick, I could not work, I applied for disability. And I hate collecting disability benefits. I would much rather be working, even if I couldn’t go back to the career I originally trained for and pursued. Furthermore, Joffe-Walt makes it sound like it’s easy to get SSDI. I don’t know if she actually investigated application and approval rates, but SSDI is not easy to obtain. I was denied twice, and finally succeeded after an ALJ hearing. The process took three years to complete. I know people who have spent even longer in the disability application process, and many have no other source of income during the long fight.
Joffe-Walt also points out, “Once people go onto disability, they almost never go back to work.” Gee, I don’t know, maybe because they’re disabled? Social Security requires that an applicant be disabled for at least a year, and unlikely to return to work, in order to qualify. Furthermore, the rigorous application and review process, and the years-long process of denial and appeal, would weed out all those able to return to work within a year or two of the illness or injury. Those of us who end up collecting benefits likely suffer from permanent or near-permanent disability, meaning that we will never return to work no matter how much we desire to do so.
The economics of disability is a worthwhile and complex subject. But of all the issues NPR could have covered – the cost of lost productivity, the plight of disabled people who cannot get benefits, the people who continue to work while being disabled, employment discrimination, the challenges of having invisible disabilities – of all these issues, NPR chose to focus on the slacker angle. The they’re-technically-disabled-but-have-chosen-to-exploit-the-system angle. Really, NPR? It’s like covering the economic impact of Hurricane Sandy by reporting on people who pad their losses in order to collect more insurance. Yes, it happens, but the most significant issues are more complex than the tired stereotype of people trying to collect money they do not deserve.