NPR Report on Disability Benefits Raises Furor

A recent National Public Radio (NPR) report on disability benefits has drawn fire from disability advocates and eight former Commissioners of the Social Security Administration for relying on anecdotal evidence and exaggeration to imply that people are abusing the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) systems.

The story, produced by NPR's Planet Money Team, notes that over the past three decades the number of Americans who get a disability check from the federal government has skyrocketed. Reporter Chana Joffe-Walt visits communities across the country, from Alabama to Washington state. In each community, Joffe-Walt highlights stories of SSDI or SSI beneficiaries with conditions that don't appear, at first glance, to be very serious, including a man with diabetes and high blood pressure and a child who has a learning disability.

The story produced a quick and passionate response. The National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives (NOSSCR), an association of attorneys who represent people with disabilities, issued a strong rebuttal pointing out that the government predicted the increase in disability claims almost twenty years ago due to aging baby boomers and more women in the workplace. The group noted that all beneficiaries pass through a rigorous system designed to weed out fraudulent claims. In fact, less than one-third of disability applications are initially approved, and the remaining beneficiaries often have to fight through years of appeals in order to receive the benefits that they are entitled to.

NPR's report focuses exclusively on the healthiest people with disabilities, and does not address the countless recipients of disability benefits who suffer from profound disabilities. NOSSCR points out that only 14 million of the nation's 38 million people with disabilities ever receive federal disability benefits. The group also explains that the Social Security Disability system is self-funded and that most claimants receive approximately $13,000 a year, a sum that keeps them from becoming completely impoverished.

Also pushing back against the NPR story were eight former Commissioners of the Social Security Administration, appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents alike. In a forceful letter, the former commissioners state that "Our nations Social Security system serves as a vital lifeline for millions of individuals with severe disabilities. We feel compelled to share our unique insight into the Social Security system because we know firsthand the dangers of mischaracterizing the disability programs via sensational, anecdote-based media accounts, leaving vulnerable beneficiaries to pick up the pieces."

If you have questions about federal disability benefits, contact your special needs planner today.

Article Last Modified: 04/17/2013