“Disability, USA” segment prompts outrage

CBS’s 60 Minutes became the latest media program to draw the ire of disability advocates for its coverage of the Social Security Disability Insurance program.

On October 6, 60 minutes ran a segment, titled “Disability, USA,” featuring an investigation by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations into extensive fraud at SSDI offices in West Virginia and Kentucky.

A social security card with paper money in the background
Inaccurate portrayal of Social Security programs

However, the report did almost nothing to question the larger characterization of SSDI from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), the subcommittee’s chairman, who argues that these examples are indicative of widespread dysfunction throughout the system.

In fact, the 13-minute segment, which begins by stating that SSDI “has been called a secret welfare system with a disability industrial complex,” does not include an interview with a single disability advocate.

“An array of recent media coverage of the Social Security disability programs, including a series broadcast on Public Radio International’s Planet Money and This American Life, as well as National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, has painted a misleading and sharply inaccurate picture of these important programs, which serve as a vital lifeline for millions of Americans with significant disabilities and illnesses,” the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities wrote in a letter to CBS. “In so doing, it has done a tremendous disservice to readers, listeners and viewers, as well as to people with disabilities.”

The number of beneficiaries of the SSDI program, which provides benefits to more than 8 million people, has grown significantly since the start of 2008, leading some congressmen, such as Coburn, to argue that the system has become a back-up welfare system for those unable to work. Recipients receive $1,130 per month through the program, placing their income just above the federal poverty line.

The increase, however, is primarily due to demographic factors, as the baby boomers continue to age into their more their disability-prone years, as well as the increased recognition of the significance of mental, as opposed to just physical, disabilities.

Fewer than half of applications to the program are approved. According to an attachment to the CCD letter, that percentage has dropped from 39 to 33 percent since 2008.

It has also been widely reported that SSDI will run out of money in 2016. In fact, the projected shortfall was predicted to begin in 2016 by the Social Security Administration as far back as 1994. Since the program’s inception in 1956, payroll tax funds have been reallocated to SSDI eleven times to make up for projected shortfalls.

“SSDI is a very strict program that denies far more people than it accepts, and needs a modest congressional fix to stay at full solvency,” The Nation’s George Zornick wrote in an article than ran October 6. “An interesting issue, for certain—but nothing like the benefit-sucking dystopia portrayed by 60 Minutes.

“Failing to mention any of the above pieces of critical context was unusual for a normally rigorous news program.”