Just in time for a scheduled meeting of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs to discuss the status of the Social Security Disability program (SSDI) on October 7th, on Sunday, October 6, CBS’ popular “news” show, 60 Minutes, aired “Disability USA” – a sensationalized program full of misleading and largely anecdotal information designed to convince viewers the program is riddled with fraud and on the brink of collapse. If you watched this program, and it is your sole source of information about Social Security Disability, you know essentially nothing about the actual operation of the program. You heard not a single word from disability recipients, their advocates, or from officials who administer the program, none of whom were invited to participate in the 60 Minutes piece.
…the 60 Minutes segment focused on some fraud in the program in one impoverished area of the country in order to paint disability recipients generally as the undeserving poor, slackers and frauds.
First, listening to the program you might not have understood that the average monthly benefit of about $1100 is not tax-payer money but earned credits for money paid into the system by the disabled worker. Then, in terms of the “shocking” growth of the disability rolls you heard CBS’s Steve Kroft and Senator Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma natter on about, you didn’t hear that the statistical growth of the program is a direct function of the increase in population over the past 30 years, the aging of the baby-boomer population into their higher disability years, the entry of women into the work force in greater numbers, and similar demographic factors. Finally, you likely came away from the program thinking that qualifying for SSDI is a cakewalk, when the actual standards for disability result in denial of two-thirds of all applications, only 10% of those denials being reversed on appeal, and an overall figure of about 41% of applicants ultimately qualifying.
Completely ignored in this puff-piece for the right wing (Coburn is the lead Republican on the Senate Subcommittee for Investigations and has a long-standing, well-documented hostility to Social Security) is the shifting of responsibility for disability from workers’ compensation systems, where it properly belongs, to the Social Security Disability program because of the rollbacks in coverage and benefits in states’ workers’ comp programs across the country, all driven by right-wing and corporate interests. So, while SSDI faces potential exhaustion of its funds in the next few years (although this can be – and in the past has been – remedied by shifting funds from the Social Security old-age program), the liability insurance industry, which includes workers’ compensation carriers, is enjoying record profits over the last two years.
Similarly unmentioned was the impact of the worst economy in decades, shrinking the ability of disabled workers to find less physically challenging work.
As is typically the case with these types of “news” pieces, the 60 Minutes segment focused on some fraud in the program in one impoverished area of the country in order to paint disability recipients generally as the undeserving poor, slackers and frauds. CBS could have moderated the potential negative impact of its program by including interviews of SSA program officials or of spokespersons from some two dozen national disability advocacy organizations who asked to be heard on this show. It shamefully chose to ignore all such requests, and has diminished itself accordingly as a news organization.