The Rest of the Story

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.


  1. Did the existing narrative exist prior to when the people on FOX discussed the NPR piece?

    Regardless, no news agency gets the story right every time and there are always going to be conflicting reports when stuff like this happens. Just ask George Will and Paul Krugman.

  2. I have two Social Security Disability stories where I know the facts; one is an obvious abuse of the system, the second is an abuse of someone 4 days after receiving their first SS Disability check.

    About 12 years ago my son’s 31 year old girlfriend obtained an attorney to apply the 2nd time for SS Disability due to occasional seizures from epilipsy. She had worked occasionally as waitress or bartender but primarily depended on her parents who had legal custody of her daughter or her boyfriends for support. She basically chose not to work when others would support her. The attorney obtained approval for her disability totalling $731 monthly plus a large 4 year retroactive check from her first refusal. At that time my SS Disability check totalled $589 after almost 25 years of working and suffering from a disabiity with no rehabilitation.

    Four years ago this same son was rear-ended in traffic on a Florida highway resulting in 7 fractured vertibrae and permanent disabiity. His attorney did obtain approval for Medicaid assistance; through extensive testing their doctors discovered he also suffered from terminal cancer. Due to two attorneys and insurance companies involved it only took 14 months for his disability approval. On a Monday, he received his first SS Disability check in the amount of $1.495 based on his lifelong income as a brick mason. On Friday he received cancellation of Medicaid because his income was too high. I wrote to Michelle Obama who forwarded my letter to his district Medicaid/Madicare office who sent me a form for him to apply for Medically Needy Assistance at his local Medicaid office. This assistance would pay a small percentage of his medical bills if he qualified. He applied and soon received their response; he would qualify for this assistance after spending $1,210 monthly from his $1,495 Disability check on his medical bills leaving $205 monthly for him to live on. Prior to his Disability approval I was supporting him on my monthly SS Disability and PERF income which was barely $100 above Federal poverty level.

    The first case was abuse of the Social Security Disabilty system; the second was abuse of a fully qualified disabled person who needed and deserved Medicaid assistance in addition to SS Disability. He was found dead in his home on January 14th of this year.

  3. Seems a stretch to beat up on Fox for agreeing with an NPR story. Especially by using the leftwing Center for Budget Policy and Priorities.

    Can we agree that the truly disabled should get the help they need, and fakers are crooks ?

    One of the most effed-up things about the US is the rapid increase in the number of children getting SSI disability, which is up 300% in 20 years. How many parents prevent their children from learning to read in order to get the $700/month SSI ? How much of the challenge to public schools stems from this madness ?

  4. JoAnn- what a terrible situation to be in. My sympathies to you and your family. It is frustrating to know people who genuinely abuse the system and seemingly don’t encounter nearly as many problems receiving benefits as people I have known who were legitimately disabled and truly in desperate need of assistance. You should send a follow up letter to Michelle Obama, the district Medicaid/Medicare office and all of your local and state representatives. They need to hear firsthand account of how the current system is broken.

  5. Thank you, Melissa. Actually I did write to Michelle again; received a form letter in reply which I understood because she cannot fix a system that has been the same for decades. My oldest son Tony died of cancer just 16 months prior to Mark’s death in January. The entire Social Security/Medicaid/Medicare system is overburdened. I believe much of the problem is that too many applicants were approved without examination and now qualified applicants are being turned away and forced to repeatedly apply. Due to sheer numbers and the law of averages, people are bound to slip through the cracks. A friend told me years ago, after sending me to the State House for statics regarding education, that anyone can find statistics to prove their point if they know where to look. That includes NPR, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Sheila quoted Paul Harvey with “the rest of the story”; I will again quote Linda Ellerbee, “And so it goes.”

  6. A 2010 piece from the Indy Star states the Indiana citizens wait the longest for benefits. IF they are fortunate enough to get them at all it takes approx 3 years. Imagine what happens to those with no family to act as a safety net. No income, 3 years. Only Indiana, folks.

  7. My sister lives in Indiana and she was able to get disability within a couple of months. I really believe it depends on the circumstance.

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