Harmful Allegations about Social Security Disability Programs Perpetuated in Misleading Media Reports

Englewood Cliffs, N.J. - April 11, 2013 - The past few weeks have seen dramatic, sensationalized media reports about the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs, based on anecdotes, half-truths and misrepresentation of facts. The National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives (NOSSCR) is compelled to set the record straight about the program - which serves as a vital resource for millions of Americans.


Increase in Disability Rolls


The truth about the increase in disability rolls is that this was an expected trend, predicted as far back as 1994, with two very clear factors: the aging baby boomers entering their high-disability years, and women who entered the workforce in the 1970s and 1980s that are now eligible to draw on their own earnings record when they become disabled.


"The mistruths and recent media barrage is unwarranted and shocking," said Nancy Shor, founder and executive director, NOSSCR. "We're very concerned that they do not tell the entire story and that they will be harmful to the millions of Americans that depend on these modest benefits to maintain a basic quality of life. Yearly benefits are only around $13,000 per year - just enough to keep beneficiaries out of deep poverty and homelessness."


Who Gets Benefits?


As eight former SSA Commissioners pointed out this week in an open letter, the standard for disability approval is strict; the majority of applicants are not approved. Disability benefits are only a modest asset that helps beneficiaries live with dignity while unable to work.

"There are more than 38 million disabled Americans, but only the most seriously disabled, or around 14 million, have proved eligible to receive benefits, which they depend on greatly" said Debra Shifrin, attorney and president of NOSSCR. "When comprehending the Social Security disability system, people need to understand that less than one third of initial applications are approved, and only 40 percent overall, as it requires evaluations and documentation to establish that these claimants are truly in great need."


Highly Regulated Fee Structure


As a member organization made up of attorneys and other advocates who represent people with disabilities, we are very concerned with the gross mischaracterizations of representatives in recent stories. It is important to keep in mind that claimants who hire private attorneys do so voluntarily.  Claimant's representatives' highly regulated fees are taken on a contingency basis and are capped at 25% of the claimants' past-due benefits, or $6,000 - whichever is lower. Additionally, the Federal Court appeals process is so time consuming and complex that few lawyers want to handle these cases at all. Attorneys that do this work are deeply committed to public service and are motivated to discourage frivolous claims that could overload an already burdened system.


Social Security Disability Benefits and The Economy


Simply put, Social Security disability benefits do not contribute to the deficit. SSDI is self-financed by payroll taxes (FICA) and SSI dollars come out of taxes raised, therefore not increasing the national debt.  Achieving long-term solvency for Social Security programs should not be part of deficit reduction efforts.  


The Social Security Disability Insurance program is an essential component of our American government system, intended to be a social safety net for American workers unable to perform job functions and support their families. These attacks are blatantly one-sided, untrue and threaten the modest benefits that are needed by so many. We encourage the media to focus on solutions to reform the system to ensure it is strong and efficient for many years to come, rather than disparaging our nation's most vulnerable population.


For more information or to speak with a representative or member of NOSSCR, please contact Lauren Weybrew at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 646-214-0514.  




NOSSCR, a specialized bar association for attorneys and other advocates who represent people with disabilities, has been a pioneer in legal continuing education and public policy advocacy since 1979. We represent Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Insurance claimants through the adjudication process, advocating for the income rights of people with disabilities. Learn more at www.nosscr.org.

Standing up to crazy talk.  Commissioner Astrue for the win!

"Social Security disability insurance is not the new welfare

The number of people applying for disability benefits does not come close to the number of people getting approved.

" NBCNews.com video: http://video.msnbc.msn.com/all-in-/51448029#51448029

More details and links here: http://www.democraticunderground.com/1017110427


Guests in both segment from Friday's All In with Chris Hayes

Michael Astrue, former Social Security commissioner (2007-2013) 
Rebecca Vallas, attorney & disability advocate 
Avik Roy, fellow of the conservative Manhattan Institute and author of Forbes.com blog "The Apothecary"




From NADR:

April 4, 2013  

An Open Letter from Former Commissioners of the Social Security Administration

As former Commissioners of the Social Security Administration (SSA), we write to express our significant concerns regarding a series recently aired on This American Life, All Things Considered, and National Public Radio stations across the U.S. ("Unfit for Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America").  Our nation’s 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.

Approximately 1 in 5 of our fellow Americans live with disabilities, but only those with the most significant disabilities qualify for disability benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Title II Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (DI) benefits and Title XVI Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits provide critical support to millions of Americans with the most severe disabilities, as well as their dependents and survivors.  Disabled beneficiaries often report multiple impairments, and many have such poor health that they are terminally ill: about 1 in 5 male DI beneficiaries and 1 in 7 female DI beneficiaries die within 5 years of receiving benefits.  Despite their impairments, many beneficiaries attempt work using the work incentives under the Social Security Act, and some do work part-time. For example, research by Mathematica and SSA finds that about 17 percent of beneficiaries worked in 2007.  However, their earnings are generally very low (two-thirds of those who worked in 2007 earned less than $5,000 for the whole year), and only a small share are able to earn enough to be self-sufficient and leave the DI and SSI programs each year.  Without Social Security or SSI, the alternatives for many beneficiaries are simply unthinkable.

The statutory standard for approval is very strict, and was made even more so in 1996.  To implement this strict standard, Social Security Administration (SSA) regulations, policies, and procedures require extensive documentation and medical evidence at all levels of the application process.  Less than one-third of initial DI and SSI applications are approved, and only about 40 percent of adult DI and SSI applicants receive benefits even after all levels of appeal.  As with adults, most children who apply are denied SSI, and only the most severely impaired qualify for benefits.

Managing the eligibility process for the disability system is a challenging task, and errors will always occur in any system of this size.  But the SSA makes every effort to pay benefits to the right person in the right amount at the right time.  When an individual applies for one of SSA’s disability programs, the agency has extensive systems in place to ensure accurate decisions, and the agency is home to many dedicated public servants who take their ongoing responsibility of the proper stewardship of the programs very seriously.  Program integrity is critically important and adequate funds must be available to make continued progress in quality assurance and monitoring.  In the face of annual appropriations that were far below what the President requested in Fiscal Year 2011 and Fiscal Year 2012, the agency has still continued to implement many new system improvements that protect taxpayers and live up to Americans’ commitment to protect the most vulnerable in our society.

It is true that DI has grown significantly in the past 30 years.  The growth that we’ve seen was predicted by actuaries as early as 1994 and is mostly the result of two factors: baby boomers entering their high-disability years, and women entering the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s so that more are now "insured" for DI based on their own prior contributions.  The increase in the number of children receiving SSI benefits in the past decade is similarly explained by larger economic factors, namely the increase in the number of poor and low-income children.  More than 1 in 5 U.S. children live in poverty today and some 44 percent live in low-income households.  Since SSI is a means-tested program, more poor and low-income children mean more children with disabilities are financially eligible for benefits. Importantly, the share of low-income children who receive SSI benefits has remained constant at less than four percent.

Yet, the series aired on NPR sensationalizes this growth, as well as the DI trust fund’s projected shortfall. History tells a less dramatic story.  Since Social Security was enacted, Congress has "reallocated" payroll tax revenues across the OASI and DI trust funds – about equally in both directions – some 11 times to account for demographic shifts. In 1994, the last time such reallocation occurred, SSA actuaries projected that similar action would next be required in 2016.  They were right on target.

We are deeply concerned that the series “Unfit for Work” failed to tell the whole story and perpetuated dangerous myths about the Social Security disability programs and the people helped by this vital system.  We fear that listeners may come away with an incorrect impression of the program—as opposed to an understanding of the program actually based on facts.

As former Commissioners of the agency, we could not sit on the sidelines and witness this one perspective on the disability programs threaten to pull the rug out from under millions of people with severe disabilities.  Drastic changes to these programs would lead to drastic consequences for some of America's most vulnerable people.  With the lives of so many vulnerable people at stake, it is vital that future reporting on the DI and SSI programs look at all parts of this important issue and take a balanced, careful look at how to preserve and strengthen these vital parts of our nation’s Social Security system.


Kenneth S. Apfel

Michael J. Astrue

Jo Anne B. Barnhart

Shirley S. Chater

Herbert R. Doggette

Louis D. Enoff

Larry G. Massanari

Lawrence H. Thompson

"The population of claimants with disabilities or various claimant subpopulations (and the ALJs who judge them) should neither be discriminated against nor scapegoated in the search for remedies to improve the Social Security Disability adjudication system and in the laudable and necessary process of achieving comprehensive Social Security reform. As the working population ages and the eligibility age for full Social Security retirement benefits gradually rises to 67 (and perhaps beyond), it is simply inevitable that we will see a higher percentage of persons validly receiving disability benefits. It would be a breach of the social contract to deny them those benefits through a procedural dodge — particularly one so ill-suited to addressing the perceived problems. As Vice President Hubert Humphrey once said, “[t]he moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”"

Scapegoating Social Security Disability Claimants (and the Judges Who Evaluate Them) | ACS http://www.acslaw.org/publications/issue-briefs/scapegoating-social-security-disability-claimants-and-the-judges-who-evalu


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