Latest Conservative Attack on Social Security: Disability Fraud Hysteria

Move over Welfare Queen. The Disability King is the new pet scapegoat for all that’s wrong with America.

Photo Credit:

Conservatives are not happy. Despite their best efforts, the public continues to give Social Security a big thumbs up, and the President has just launched his second term with a speech hailing the program as a force that strengthens America.

You can understand their frustration. They’ve tried so very hard to make Americans think that we cannot afford to treat sick, disabled and elderly people with dignity while we subsidize the rich and fight unnecessary wars. But the public hasn't bought their solvency fabrications. And we haven’t been fooled by various pretenses for cutting, from the “chained CPI” adjustment to extending the retirement age again. Even the means-testing ruse, cloaked as sensitivity to the poor but intended to drain public support for the program, hasn’t worked out for them so far.

Conservatives still hate Social Security. Since the day the program was passed under Franklin Roosevelt, the greedy rich who don’t want to pay taxes and the financiers who want to stick Americans with private retirement accounts on which they can charge fees continue to invent new ways to attack and discredit the country's best-loved program. The think-tank minions and PR units attached to these Scrooges keep themselves up at night imagining new ways to dupe the public into accepting grotesque economic inequality as the norm and a downgraded future as the price we must pay for Wall Street greed.


Now the Social Security haters are taking a page from the Welfare Queen smear campaign book of the ‘90s to conjure a new scapegoat for all that is wrong with America: the Disability King. According to this meme, the problem with America’s economy and society is vast numbers of lazy, lying, good-for-nothing loafers cheating the American taxpayer through disability fraud.

You have to give them credit for chutzpah. Let’s take a look at the claims.

First, who gets disability? According to the Social Security Web site:

"Social Security pays benefits to people who cannot work because they have a medical condition that is expected to last at least one year or result in death. Federal law requires this very strict definition of disability. While some programs give money to people with partial disability or short-term disability, Social Security does not."

Conservatives claim that disability rolls are rising at a head-spinning rate, which must mean that the country is filling up with very clever malingerers. Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, recently raised a great hue and cry in the Wall Street Journal in an article whose title sums up his Mitt Romney-inspired political perspective: “Yes, Mr. President, We Are a Nation of Takers.” (Eberstadt wrote a book with a similar title in 2012.)

Is Eberstadt referring to bankers? Corporate tax evaders, perhaps? No. He is outraged by the specter of shiftless American males who have decided to ditch work and file for disability instead. Apparently forgetting that the country has just undergone the most devastating economic crisis since the Great Depression, he conjures the image of “the American male flight from work” which is “so acute that more than 7% of men in their late 30s" have "totally checked out of the workforce.”

Never mind that it is work that has flown from the American male, rather than the other way around. Eberstadt insists on a plague of layabouts who are kicking back while rolling in sweet checks from Uncle Sam:

“Arithmetically speaking, the recent American flight from work has largely been a flight to government disability programs. According to the Social Security Administration, the number of working-age Americans relying on Social Security's disability programs has increased dramatically over the past two generations.”

Eberstadt goes on to complain that the biggest increases in disability claims have been for "musculoskeletal" problems and mental disorders, and shares his lay opinion that “it is impossible for a health professional to ascertain conclusively whether or not a patient is suffering from back pains or sad feelings.” (Conservatives reserve special ire for the rise in "mood disorder" claims, which include such conditions as major depression and bipolar disoder.)

Obviously, Eberstadt is indignant thinking that vast numbers of people filing for disability are faking it, a fear that has even been encouraged by liberals like Nicholas Kristof, who recently described dirt-poor Appalachians who misuse the Supplemental Security Income (based on financial need) by claiming that their children have intellectual disabilities in order to nab a $648 per month government check. “Some young people here don’t join the military…” Kristof notes solemnly, “because it’s easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments.” Obviously, these idlers are denying their country perfectly good cannon fodder. The nerve!

So what’s really going on with disability rolls? A close look shows that “arithmetically speaking,” Eberstadt is full of it. There has been a rise in the disability rolls all right, but mostly not for the reasons he puts forth. Jared Berstein, a former economist for the Obama administration, notes that much of the rise is due to simple demographics trends.

As they age, baby boomers are more likely to have disabilities than they did when they were young. That’s one reason for the rise. Another is the fact that more women have joined the workforce and can receive disability. As Berstein explains, about half of the increase in disability rolls since 1990 is due to these factors.

An additional item bringing more people onto disability rolls is the rising retirement age. In 1983, the Reagan-supported Greenspan Commission declared a phased-in rise in the eligibility age for Social Security from 65 to 67. Among the effects of this misguided policy was forcing older people who get too sick to work to apply for disability because they can’t yet receive Social Security. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “roughly 20-30 percent of Americans in their 60s have a health problem that limits their ability to work or to perform basic physical tasks."

Since the retirement age has been gradually rising since 1983, you thus get more people in their 60s applying for disability. Thanks, conservatives, for helping blow up those disability rolls!

So far, we’ve accounted for more than half of the rise Eberstadt is presumably talking about when he claims alarming increases in the disability rolls. What about the rest? That part of the story is not as easy to grasp, and there are disputes about what is causing it. A 2011 paper published in the American Economic Review by Columbia University economist Till von Wachter and two colleagues, “Trends in Employment and Earnings of Allowed and Rejected Applicants to the Social Security Disability Insurance Program,” provides some insight.

The von Wachter paper indicates that in addition to the factors already discussed, like increased numbers of women in the workforce, there have been other changes that have increased the rolls of the Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) program since the 1980s. The first of these, according to the authors, is the increasingly crappy economic situation and job prospects for lower-skilled people which leads to “lower rates of participation in the labor force for less-educated men.” Also, the Social Security Disability Benefits Reform Act of 1984 provided for certain revisions, including a change in the standards for determining mental impairments and more emphasis on the combined effects of multiple ailments in the absence of one severe impairment. (This is why Eberstadt grouses about applicants citing things like back pain and depression.)

So what about this supposed male flight from work? Could some of the low-income men who apply for disability actually work in the absence of benefits? Among older workers, the answer seems to be no. Researchers are able to determine this by looking at whether or not rejected applicants are able to find jobs. Older workers, they find, have a very hard time getting a job if they don’t get disability.

The story is somewhat different among young workers, and researchers have found that when they are rejected for disability they have a better chance of getting employment, which suggests that some of them may indeed be making false claims. On the other hand, some are merely going back to the workforce with whatever disability they have and taking crappier jobs as a result. Researchers know this because they find that young rejected applicants who return to the labor force suffer earnings losses which are often permanent when compared to similar nonapplicants.

Von Wachter’s research shows that two things are happening:

“The first is the notion that DI increasingly has attracted economically less successful workers, and at least some fraction of those applicants has been screened out during the application process. Second, some rejected applicants are likely to be truly disabled, and our findings are partly driven by worsening economic conditions for less healthy workers. The findings also suggest that the application to DI itself might be costly in terms of depressed earnings for rejected applicants returning to the labor force.”

If you look only look at the world from a 1 percent point of view, as Eberstadt does, you see a nation of malingerers. But if you look at it from the 99 percent point of view, you see changing demographics and an economic catastrophe that has left the lowest-income males scrambling for survival. In some cases – certainly not the overwhelming number suggested by Eberstadt—they are indeed filling out false applications for disability. This is a problem, but if conservatives were truly worried about rising disability rolls, then they would be blocking any attempt to raise the eligibility age for Social Security and fighting the job insecurity, economic inequality, and particularly the terrible prospects and indebtedness of young people that drive them to desperation.

If you look at the world from a human point of view, you see that most of the people who apply for disablity are, in fact, disabled, and that refusing their claims costs everyone. It means more foreclosures, more evictions, more families torn apart. Applying for disability is not a cakewalk by any means. It's a multi-step process requiring intense documentation that results in rejection most of the time (in 2010, the rejection rate nationwide was 65 percent; some claimants later succeed through appeals).

But disability fraud is not really what worries conservatives. They are concerned about lining the pockets of the rich and shaming the rest. For those reasons, they will continue to try to discredit Social Security – one of the few remaining equalizers we have in an increasingly unequal society. They will try to pretend that the takers in this country are the ordinary people struggling to survive. But Americans know better. The Great Recession has shown us just who the takers really are -- and they are typically found in bank boardrooms. That’s why Mitt Romney is not president today. That’s why Eberstadt's divisive, misleading story about what’s wrong with America deserves little credence.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Lynn Parramore is an author and cultural theorist. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.