"America’s social safety net, such as it is, has recently come under some scrutiny. Chana Joffe-Walt’s in-depth exploration of the increase in people getting Social Security Disability benefits at NPR got many listeners buzzing. Then in The Wall Street Journal, Damian Paletta and Caroline Porter looked at the increase in the use of food stamps, called SNAP. All three journalists look at the increasing dependence on these programs and come away puzzled: Why are so many people now getting disability and food stamp payments?

The answer is twofold. Recent trends give us the first part of the explanation. Yes, as Paletta and Porter note, the economy is recovering and the unemployment rate is falling. But, as they recognize, the poverty rate is also rising. And therein lies the rub: people are getting jobs but staying poor. The available jobs are increasingly low-wage and don’t pay enough to live off of. And the big profits in the private sector haven’t led to an increase in wages.

GDP and employment may be doing well, but that hasn’t done much for those at the bottom of the totem pole. As the WSJ article points out, 48.5 million people were living in poverty in 2011, up from 37.3 million in 2007, a 30 percent increase. This is despite an unemployment rate that’s fallen off its peak. Some of the fall in the unemployment rate has been driven by people simply giving up on looking for a job altogether. But those who do get jobs are likely trading their once middle-class employment for low-wage work. The National Employment Law Project has found that mid-wage jobs have been wiped out during the recovery in favor of low-wage work: low paying jobs grew nearly three times as fast as mid-wage or high-wage work.

But there’s a deeper explanation that goes beyond the current economic picture. Aren’t there other programs for the increasing ranks of people living in poverty to turn to? Unfortunately, we’ve worked hard to weaken key parts of the safety net by changing how programs operate and then cutting back on their funds. Consequently, the number of people who are reached by programs for the poor has shrunk. But when you take away someone’s lifeline, they don’t stop needing it. So they either suffer hardship or find support elsewhere. What disability insurance and SNAP have in common is that they are fully funded by the federal government, which also can set the eligibility requirements. While states narrow eligibility requirements for TANF or unemployment insurance, the federal government can leave them (relatively) more open for SNAP and disability. That leaves them absorbing those who we’ve thrown off the rolls of other programs. . . "

This Is What Happens When You Rip a Hole in the Safety Net | Common Dreams https://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/03/29-9

 

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"The cleverly titled story, “Trends with Benefits” is gracefully presented and gets some things right. It depicts with human texture some unpleasant realities facing millions of displaced workers with health difficulties whom our economy has left behind. With the exception of nutrition assistance, our safety-net has failed to keep pace with the Great Recession. Disability assistance has naturally filled the gap. SSI and SSDI expenditures have correspondingly increased. This is an important story.

Still, I fear the misimpressions this piece leaves behind. Particularly in the area of childhood disability, Joffe-Walt presents an awfully incomplete picture. Listeners are invited to conclude that many kids are brought onto SSI who really don’t need the help, that overly lax program requirements and loopholes, exploited by the “disability-industrial complex,” have produced exploding caseloads and an unsustainable budget problem.

Joffe-Walt says little about the mechanics of the eligibility determination process, or how it might be improved. She doesn’t discuss how the administrative capacities of SSI and SSDI might be bolstered to reduce errors in both directions that have large consequences for human lives.

Listeners might be surprised to discover that the final award rate for disability applications has averaged about 45 percent. Moreover, low employment rates among denied applicants suggest that disability assistance is not inducing otherwise-employable people out of the workforce. The misfortunes of people wrongly denied benefits, the problem of sick people bleeding money as the ponderous bureaucratic process moves along, the plight of disabled people stick on the Medicare waiting period—these matters were also left unexplored."

Misleading Trends with Benefits : Our Blog : Welcome to The Century Foundation http://tcf.org/blog/detail/misleading-trends-with-benefits

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"The number of Americans receiving federal disability payments has nearly doubled over the last 15 years. There are towns and counties around the nation where almost 1/4 of adults are on disability. Planet Money's Chana Joffe-Walt spent 6 months exploring the disability program, and emerges with a story of the U.S. economy quite different than the one we've been hearing." (Transript available soon)  This American Life

Here is the detail behind the story by Chana Joffe-Walt:

"In the past three decades, the number of Americans who are on disability has skyrocketed. The rise has come even as medical advances have allowed many more people to remain on the job, and new laws have banned workplace discrimination against the disabled. Every month, 14 million people now get a disability check from the government.

The federal government spends more money each year on cash payments for disabled former workers than it spends on food stamps and welfare combined. Yet people relying on disability payments are often overlooked in discussions of the social safety net. People on federal disability do not work. Yet because they are not technically part of the labor force, they are not counted among the unemployed.

In other words, people on disability don't show up in any of the places we usually look to see how the economy is doing. But the story of these programs -- who goes on them, and why, and what happens after that -- is, to a large extent, the story of the U.S. economy. It's the story not only of an aging workforce, but also of a hidden, increasingly expensive safety net. " Unfit for Work: The startling rise of disability in America | Planet Money http://apps.npr.org/unfit-for-work/

Here is the first pass at fact checking by Media Matters:

"Public radio program This American Life pushed a series of myths about Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI), a Social Security program that supports families that include children with disabilities. The piece ignored that the recent rise in disability benefits is tied to the recession and higher rates of poverty, that qualifying for benefits is difficult, that SSI encourages employment, and that the current program has significantly reduced poverty among children with disabilities." This American Life Features Error-Riddled Story On Disability And Children |  Media Matters for America http://mediamatters.org/research/2013/03/22/this-american-life-features-error-riddled-story/193215

 

NPR has begun to clarify:

"Under fire for a sloppy report that leaned on anecdotal evidence to make sweeping generalizations about federal disability benefits, NPR has edited portions of that report even as Ira Glass publicly defends the initial reporting.

On March 22, Media Matters highlighted several myths and errors in a report from NPR's Planet Money about Supplemental Security Insurance, a federal disability program for children. The report drew further criticism, and more than 100 organizations that advocate for and support people with disabilities have signed a letter criticizing the piece, saying it "paints a misleading and inaccurate picture of the Social Security programs that serve as a vital lifeline for millions of Americans with severe disabilities."" NPR Adds Clarity To Discredited Disability Report | Blog | Media Matters for America http://mediamatters.org/blog/2013/03/28/npr-adds-clarity-to-discredited-disability-repo/193340

 

In the Freismuth decision (E.D. Wis) [PDF], , District Judge Stadmueller began his decision with a German Proverb and moved quickly to strong criticsim of the U.S. Attorney's office and SSA's handling of cases in his court.

Judge Stadtmueller discussed the flawed administrative process, in which the U.S. Attorney submitted the briefs of the Social Security Administration to the Court "without any serious independent legal analysis or thoughtful review."  The Judge found this to be a ". . . hardly an effective strategy to defend the indefensible."  To emphasize his point, Judge Stadtmueller undertook a review of the costs, both fiscal and human, exacerbated by the failures of the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Attorney's office.

In a scheduling hearing held in other cases on March 13, 2013, Judge Stadtmueller upped the force of his warnings to the U.S. Attorney and the Social Security Administration.  In particular, he explained to the Assistant U.S. Attorney:

 

. . .  I am hopeful that we can avoid having to put together a 30- or 40-page decision in every one of these  cases along with a concluding paragraph of sanctions.  And the  sanctions will be on a sliding scale, that is, it will probably  be 3 to $400 the first time, but then it will get all the way up to disbarment"

 

Full transcript below, click on the "Read More" bar.

 

Read more: Warning of Sanctions for U.S. Attorney, up to and Including Disbarment