Last month, The Washington Post published a story that was supposed to highlight abuse of the Social Security Disability Insurance system, especially in rural areas that voted for Trump. There was also an editorial calling for the wholesale restructuring of the program. This article and editorial were already problematic in the way they discussed poverty and earned benefits programs that ensure basic living standards. In addition, the Washington Post’s story is eerily similar to a widely-debunked NPR story that inspired a bipartisan letter from eight former Social Security commissioners condemning the inaccuracies. Imagine our surprise and confusion that The Washington Post got basic facts about the SSDI program wrong, including suggesting “changes” to the program that are already part of it (and have been for years).
So it should be no surprise that last week, the Center for American Progress published some stunning findings about the data used in The Washington Post’s article. The major claim in The Post’s article – that one in three working-age adults in certain rural counties are receiving SSDI – is not even a number that is possible to calculate from existing data. Some of the numbers double-count people or include children and seniors. The Post has essentially manufactured problems in the SSDI program based on bad data.
Here are some real facts about SSDI:
- Fewer than 4 in 10 people who apply for SSDI are approved;
- Over 90 percent of the growth in SSDI can be accounted for by an aging population, more women workers, and population growth;
- The average SSDI benefit is $1,170 per month, which is only slightly above the federal poverty line for one person;
- The number of SSDI recipients is likely to stay the same over the next 20 years; and
- SSDI protects 150 million Americans from having no income if they become disabled and lose their ability to work.
Basically, the Washington Post painted a picture of the Social Security Disability Insurance program being abused. But by using incorrect data, it’s a false picture. And in a world where programs that low-income people depend on are very much at risk, this false picture could have very serious consequences. The Washington Post should stop using bad data that could encourage Congress or the White House to cut programs that protect American workers.
Update: The Washington Post published a correction to their story. TalkPoverty has further analysis on why the article is still incorrect – even with its revised calculations. Key takeaway: The Washington Post’s case for higher rates of SSDI claims in rural areas is still vastly overstated, and could have serious consequences if efforts to alter the program are made with claims like the Post’s in mind.