By Jeffrey Freedman
Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a vital safety net for Americans who are unable to work due to chronic illness or injury. The program provides critical benefits to more than 10 million workers each year. Although some make SSDI out to be an “entitlement” program, it is not. It is an insurance program paid into by employees and employers. Yet, SSDI is constantly under attack by media reports that tell only one side of the story.
Coverage including NPR’s “Planet Money,” “This American Life,” “All Things Considered” and CBS’ “60 Minutes” have painted inaccurate pictures of SSDI. A recent “60 Minutes” interview with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., stated an investigation done by his office found 25 percent of disability claims should not have been approved, and 20 percent were questionable.
Yet, Social Security disability standards are incredibly strict, with just four in 10 applicants awarded benefits, according to the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities. Rates actually declined during the recent economic downturn.
Demonstrating eligibility requires extensive medical evidence, and even those with life-threatening illnesses wait months if not years to receive benefits, typically living without any form of income. With the average monthly disability check at $1,100, beneficiaries are certainly not living high on the hog. For most, benefits make it possible to secure stable housing and purchase food, life-sustaining medications and other basic necessities.
Over the past two years we have heard SSDI is exploding because unemployed workers are turning to it when unemployment insurance runs out. In fact, in the mid-1990s, actuarial projections predicted the growth that has occurred, and the Social Security Office of the Actuary notes that demographic factors including baby boomers aging, women entering the workforce in the ’70s and ’80s, and the increase in the retirement age explain much of the growth.
Several reports on SSDI focus exclusively on one or more localities with relatively high rates of favorable decisions, but fail to note these are statistical departures from the norm. Media coverage has real consequences and in the past, policy by anecdote has significantly harmed Social Security disability beneficiaries.
The public needs to know these reports come from people who have an agenda to dismantle the Social Security program, and are not the whole story. Commentary from representatives of the Social Security Administration is notably missing from these biased reports. In the end, the program is the best plan we have to keep millions of people with disabilities from deep poverty and homelessness.
Jeffrey Freedman serves on the New York State Bar Association Disabilities Committee and is former chairman of the Erie County Bar Association Disability Committee.