Congressional Republicans are borrowing from years of right-wing media attacks on federal disability benefits to justify their recent attempt to snarl funding for Social Security programs.
On January 6, Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a change to legislative rules that restricts the historically routine transfer of tax money from the Social Security retirement fund to the Social Security disability program. Such transfers have helped keep both Social Security programs solvent. In practice, the rule change makes these reallocations nearly impossible by requiring that they be "accompanied by 'benefit cuts or tax increases that improve the solvency of both funds.' " As the Los Angeles Times' Michael Hiltzik explained, because the disability fund is on track to "run dry as early as next year," this could mean "disability benefits for 11 million beneficiaries would have to be cut 20%."
In a January 6 statement justifying the rule change, Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX) called the disability program "fraud-plagued." And during a January 14 event in New Hampshire on the long-term future of safety-net programs, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) claimed many who receive disability benefits are "gaming the system" and downplayed disabilities, saying, "over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts. Join the club."
From the November 3 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
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Fox News' Stuart Varney dishonestly hyped new data on the number of Americans receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) to accuse beneficiaries of committing fraud to avoid finding a job. But experts agree that fraud in the SSDI program is low and there is no evidence Americans are faking their disabilities.
A May 21 Drudge Report headline proclaimed a "Record 10,999,447 On Disability and linked to a CNSnews.com article announcing that the total number of disability beneficiaries in the U.S rose in April "setting a new all-time record":
On Fox's America's Newsroom, Fox Business host Stuart Varney claimed the "explosion" in disability beneficiaries showed "America is becoming increasingly a welfare state. " Varney accused SSDI beneficiaries of committing fraud by taking the "disability option" supposedly where able-bodied individuals who can't find a job use SSDI "almost as an insurance policy against no income or no job":
VARNEY: During the Obama years we've gone from eight million people, just about eight million people claiming Social Security disability payments all the way up to nearly 11 million. That is a huge explosion in disability payments. Now a lot of people are taking what's called the disability option. They can't find a job. So they take -- they treat disability almost as an insurance policy against no income or no job. So you have got this explosion in disability payments. And Martha, we can't afford it.
Two points, number one, if we go on like this the Social Security disability trust fund, totally runs out of money by the end of 2016. That is not that far away. Number two, there's been an expansion in who qualifies for disability payments. Mental disorder is now acceptable. Mood disorder, or back pain. Now, that kind of opens the door to fraud because you can't really prove a lot of that. And plus, once you get disability, you're on it for a very long time because the virtually very little inspection process to figure out who is off the disability, who has recovered. So pretty much payment for life. We can't afford this
Conservative media hyped a misleading chart attempting to show that the number of Americans receiving federal disability benefits has reached unsustainable highs, comparing the figure of recipients to the population of random countries around the world. Accurate charts putting the figure in reasonable context, however, show that the number of needy Americans in this safety net program is astonishingly low.
On May 21 Fox News and the Drudge Report hyped the findings of conservative news site CNS which pushed the false idea that too many Americans are currently receiving Social Security Disability Insurance, stating that the number has reached "a new all-time record" and featuring a graph blasting the fact that more people get disability benefits than live in Greece and Tunisia:
There are also more people in the state of Ohio than Greece or Tunisia, but that isn't cause for alarm. A more accurate graph showing the number of Americans who receive this necessary benefit shows that compared to the total number of Americans who have disabilities, and the total population of the U.S., relatively few individuals are on this government program:
Coverage of Social Security in three major national print outlets relied on reporting figures in raw numbers devoid of relevant context -- such as previous years' figures -- that could provide a more accurate picture of the program's finances. These findings, calculated since July 2013, are consistent with a previous Media Matters analysis of print media's coverage of Social Security.
From the February 21 edition of Fox News' America's News HQ:
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From the January 28 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier:
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In the second half of 2013, weekday broadcast and cable evening news discussed Social Security in a largely negative light by repeatedly insisting that the program is insolvent, must be cut, or poses a risk to long-term fiscal security.
Right-wing media have spent the last few years baselessly dismissing the decades-long push to alleviate poverty as not worth the fight, despite evidence showing that government efforts to reduce poverty have been successful.
On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson used his State of the Union address to enumerate proposals that would come to be known as the War on Poverty. Many of the proposals and policy prescriptions outlined in the president's speech were eventually signed into law.
Recent research from the Columbia Population Research Center at Columbia University reveals the extent to which anti-poverty programs since the 1960s have alleviated poverty for millions of Americans. The study, titled "Trends in Poverty with an Anchored Supplemental Poverty Measure," uses a uniform measure of poverty (supplemental poverty measure or SPM) to show a dramatic drop-off in poverty rates from 1967 to 2011. From the study (emphasis added):
The OPM shows the overall poverty rates to be nearly the same in 1967 and 2011 -- at 14% and 15% respectively. But our counterfactual estimates using the anchored SPM show that without taxes and other government programs, poverty would have been roughly flat at 27-29%, while with government benefits poverty has fallen from 26% to 16% -- a 40% reduction. Government programs today are cutting poverty nearly in half (from 29% to 16%) while in 1967 they only cut poverty by about one percentage point.
Today, despite mounting evidence of their success, the corresponding anti-poverty programs created during the War on Poverty face incessant and withering criticism from conservative politicians and their right-wing media allies. Conservative media voices regularly repeat the claim that anti-poverty programs are useless, or that after 50 years they are no longer working. In fact, as recently as January 7, Fox News host Martha MacCallum cast doubt on whether or not lowering the poverty rate over the past five decades was worth the effort, but the following graph from The New York Times' Economix blog shows just how effective these programs have been:
Source: The New York Times, Economix Blog, "The War On Poverty at 50"
In addition to questioning the general efficacy of anti-poverty relief efforts, right-wing media voices have targeted specific Johnson-era programs and initiatives like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, expanded food stamps and welfare, and an increased minimum wage in their coordinated attempt to undermine the social safety net, effectively stymying the purpose of the War on Poverty.
Weekday broadcast and cable evening news covered a variety of economic topics including deficit reduction, economic growth, and effects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) throughout the fourth quarter of 2013. A Media Matters analysis shows that many of these segments lacked proper context or input from economists, with Fox News continuing to advance the erroneous notion that the ACA is the purported cause behind poor job growth.
Fox News is convinced that the recent increase in federal disability benefits must be suspicious -- but they're ignoring the historic rise of disabling conditions, which results in 1 in 5 Americans with disabilities.
During a January 3 Fox & Friends segment about "Who's Ruining the Economy," co-host Steve Doocy asked why more Americans were receiving Social Security disability benefits, wondering "are there simply more people who are becoming disabled, or are more people just simply becoming desperate?"
Guest and Fox Business host Stuart Varney replied, "I think it's the latter. A lot of people are taking the disability option," suggesting that millions of Americans were faking their disabilities in order to receive benefits while unemployed.
Varney is simply wrong. As medical advancements allow us to live longer lives, they are also making us more likely to live with disabilities. The Global Burden of Disease Study 2010, produced over five years by hundreds of researchers around the world, revealed that on average the world population lives longer and is more likely to survive lethal diseases than ever before. As The Washington Post reported, this means that "people are living with conditions that don't kill them but that affect their health":
"These are things like mental disorders, substance abuse, musculoskeletal pain, vision loss, hearing loss . . . that cause a huge amount of disability but not a whole lot of death," said Murray, who heads the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
People are living longer lives, but the time they are gaining isn't entirely time with good health. For every year of life expectancy added since 1990, about 91 / 2 months is time in good health. The rest is time in a diminished state -- in pain, immobility, mental incapacity or medical support such as dialysis. For people who survive to age 50, the added time is "discounted" even further. For every added year they get, only seven months are healthy.
"Progress in reducing disability just hasn't kept pace with progress in reducing mortality," said Joshua A. Salomon of the Harvard School of Public Health, one of the project leaders.
Only about 1 in 25 Americans receive disability benefits, but nearly 1 in 5 Americans have a disability. That's about 56.7 million people. The Social Security administration further estimates that a 20-year-old worker today has a 1 in 4 chance of becoming disabled before reaching retirement.
Furthermore, as Media Matters has repeatedly and extensively documented, despite Fox's never-ending campaign to demonize Social Security disability, it is not an "option" that out-of-work individuals can rely on if they do not have severe disabilities. The eligibility criteria are stringent, with waiting periods that are typically months long, and more than half of all applicants are denied. There is also no evidence that people receiving disability benefits are hurting the economy.
The rise of disabling medical conditions is a serious issue for millions of Americans, and the ability of the federal disability programs to help some of those individuals survive when they are unable to work could be at risk if Congress fails to reallocate the necessary funds for the programs, which they have routinely done before. But Fox would rather push baseless and deceptive fears about these necessary federal programs than accurately report on the medical conditions millions of Americans live with every day.
The past 12 months witnessed innumerable attacks on social safety net programs in the United States. These attacks on American social insurance programs were hardly limited to Social Security -- all forms of social insurance, including unemployment benefits, food stamps, and disability, came under fire from mainstream and conservative media alike, regardless of the programs' social or economic benefits. Media Matters compiled a list of the six types of attacks on the social safety net in 2013.
For more than three years, an influential study by two Harvard economists -- Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff -- provided a plausible foundation for attacks on spending of all types. The study fostered debt-paranoia among pundits otherwise interested in austere fiscal policies.
An April study by economists at the University of Massachusetts, however, concluded that the Reinhart-Rogoff data was error-filled in a way that selectively biased the results. A further review of the corrected data by economists at the University of Michigan found that the study should have been deemed inconclusive.
Despite losing its intellectual foundation in April, the deficit reduction talking point maintained a prominent position in fiscal policy discussion throughout the year.
Media calls for deficit reduction in the past year also regularly relied on budget reporting that lacked adequate context that federal budget deficits have declined precipitously from their 2009 peak. A Media Matters review of budget reporting done by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post revealed that a sizeable majority of articles provided budget items and program spending figures out of context. Further analysis concluded this misrepresentative reporting to be little more than a scare tactic, which bolstered calls for deeper cuts to the safety net for the sake of alleged fiscal responsibility.
This lack of context in media, and the effect it had in shifting the policy debate, eventually encouraged Times public editor Margaret Sullivan to issue a statement promising to correct problematic reporting standards going forward, but other outlets have yet to follow suit.
From a November 15 speech at the Freedom Center's 2013 Restoration Weekend:
From the October 25 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:
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In the week following the end of the 16-day government shutdown, major print media outlets shifted their attention to upcoming bipartisan budget negotiations. This coverage of budget priorities was far more likely to mention the need for deficit and debt reduction than economic growth and job creation, despite economists warning that growth is the more pressing concern.