A few days ago, I noted that Fox News had actually had kind words to say about a piece run by NPR. I should have known that there was something wrong with that picture–and there was. In the wake of the NPR report, which addressed perceived overuse of the Social Security Disability program, there have been serious criticisms of its accuracy and conclusions.
I should have known that a Fox endorsement calls for a closer look….
The Planet Money report portrayed the disability program as a “hidden, increasingly expensive safety net,” and implied strongly that it was over-used and out of control. Those conclusions were rebutted in at least two subsequent stories, one in U.S. News and World Report, and the other in the L.A. Times.
U.S. News called the NPR report “overwrought and unbalanced.” The typical beneficiary is in his or her late 50s, suffering from severe mental, musculoskeletal, circulatory, respiratory or other debilitating condition. Studies have concluded that most beneficiaries are unable to work at all, and virtually none can do anything substantial. It is true, as NPR reported, that the number of people collecting disability has grown, but this is a function of demographics; as U.S. News notes, “It is completely predictable that claims would go up as the baby boomers aged into the period in their lives when disability claims become more likely, and increasing numbers of women were acquiring the work experience necessary to qualify.”
About those qualifications: getting disability is far from easy. To be eligible, you must have worked for at least one-fourth of your adult life, and have been employed in at least five of the ten years prior to application. (Children qualify under SSI, a companion program, and workers younger than 31 have to have been employed in half the years since they turned 22.) Only a quarter of all applications are approved initially, and another 13% on appeal. Only 41% of those who apply ever see a check.
Disability rates are closely tied to work conditions–as the L.A. Times reports, in West Virginia, which has the nation’s highest disability rate, 150 out of every 1000 jobs involves transportation, hauling, construction or mining. NPR reported on a county in Alabama, where a large percentage of the population is on disability. Despite NPR’s insinuation that residents of the County were a bunch of malingerers, a Center for Budget Policy and Priorities analysis places it among a group of Southern and Appalachian states with a distinct set of demographic indicators: low rates of high-school completion, an older workforce, fewer immigrants and an industrial mix that consists mainly of manufacturing, forestry and mining. Older, less educated workers in physically demanding jobs are less likely to be able to continue working if they become disabled.
So–as Paul Harvey would have said–that’s “the rest of the story.”
You’d think the exponents of “fair and balanced” reporting might have noted the existence of a conflicting narrative.