Sunday, March 31, 2013

How 'This American Life' got the disability story wrong

 Fri Mar 29, 2013 at 01:28 PM PDT
Disabled child
Last week, NPR's This American Life and Planet Money featured "Unfit to Work," a story from reporter Chana Joffe-Walt, which implies that lots of people are receiving Supplemental Security who don’t deserve the help and that children, particularly, are being enrolled at alarming levels, often for questionable disabilities. The right-wing media of course picked up the story and ran with it. Policy wonks furthered it and called for reform. That left Media Matters and economists and disability experts like Dean Baker,  Shawn Fremstad and Harold Pollack to clean up the misinformation. Pollack has perhaps the best rebuttal in his blog post and interview at WonkBlog (credit to them for following up their interview with the story's reporter with an informed rebuttal). Some of his primary points:
  • "Despite the ministrations of what Joffe-Walt labels the “disability industrial complex,” the majority of disability applicants are actually denied. SSI and SSDI are not boondoggles." The CBPP analyzed Social Security records and determined that out of 1,000 applications for disability, 410 are allowed, more than one-third of those after appeals.
  • Jaffe-Walt presented two graphs to show that disability insurance has become the new welfare, one showing a decrease in the number of families with children receiving temporary assistance and the other showing an increase in the number of low-income adults generally receiving Supplemental Security, suggesting that it was the same population moving from one to the other. But those "graphs just don’t go together. They cover different populations, whose dynamics are influenced by different processes."
  • “Child SSI caseloads are not exploding. Nor are large numbers of single moms transitioning from traditional welfare (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF) to SSI. [...] Rising poverty rates, not lax program rules, is the critical factor. [...] [T]he rise in the child SSI caseloads is dwarfed by the decline in the number of children receiving cash assistance after the 1996 welfare reform."
There's a huge piece missing out of Jaffe-Walt's story as well, that she misses right here, when she's talking about laid-off mill-workers: "I talked to a bunch of mill guys who took this [disability] path—one who shattered the bones in his ankle and leg, one with diabetes, another with a heart attack. When the mill shut down, they all went on disability."
Heart disease, diabetes and a shattered ankle. In the real world, those are called pre-existing conditions. In the real world, the only jobs available to these men are low-wage jobs that don't provide health insurance. Heart disease and diabetes are conditions that require regular trips to the doctor, prescriptions and medical expenses. The cheaper alternative for them, and for a nation with a broken health care system, is to have them receiving $13,000 a year in disability income and regular medical care. Another piece missing from the story is the large population of disability recipients there because of mental impairments and mental illness. Where once they'd have been institutionalized, either in hospitals or prisons, they're now living on their own with the help of disability payments; again, a cheaper alternative for government than housing them.
What the story did that was of service was to put a focus on a dysfunctional economy that has no place in the workforce because they are too old, too sick or otherwise “obsolete.” That should have been the story Jaffe-Walt told, instead of an alarmist, incomplete and mythical picture of another "entitlement" gone out of control.

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