She also drew from another reporting experience in Aberdeen, WA, discussing how workers went on disability after a mill had closed. Her reporting led her to some conclusions about the relationship between disability benefits and work:

Disability has also become a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills. It wasn’t supposed to serve this purpose. It’s not a retraining program designed to get people back onto their feet. Once people go onto disability, they almost never go back to work.

Joffe-Walt didn’t report that many of these disabled workers have life-threatening conditions. According to NASI, 1 in 5 men and nearly 1 in 6 women die within five years of going on the disability program. She notes that “people who leave the workforce and go on disability qualify for Medicare,” but she failed to point out that there is a two-year waiting period to receive Medicare benefits once they qualify for disability benefits. In my own work, I have seen seriously ill people cry during interviews because they had no way to pay for the healthcare they needed during that long waiting period.

At the end of her piece, Joffe-Walt noted that the “reserves in the disability insurance program are on track to run out in 2016.” She says Social Security’s chief actuary, Steve Goss, is “confident” that Congress will act to keep the payments coming, and that he and his colleagues have worked out a temporary fix until 2033. She didn’t dive into the options for reform, although there are a number of them, and they are too rarely discussed.

Her conclusions drew a strong backlash from across the spectrum—from former Social Security commissioners to academics (such as University of Chicago professor Harold Pollack) to Beltway policy shops, like the centrist Center for Budget and Policy Priorities or the more liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research.

In an open letter, eight former Social Security commissioners said “‘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.” In their letter, they acknowledged that disability claims had risen significantly, but noted that growth had been predicted as early as 1994—the result of more women in the workforce and baby boomers reaching the years when disability sets in.

On the blog of the Century Foundation, and in a Q&A with The Washington Post, Pollack, who a disability expert, pushed back hard against the assertions made in the piece. Pollack wrote on the blog:

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 stuck on the Medicare waiting period—these matters were left unexplored.
After rereading “Unfit for Work,” I agree with the critics. The piece did a disservice to an important safety net crucial to the survival of some of the sickest people around. It could have been a useful service had it explained what disability benefits ars—social insurance, not welfare. And that the Social Security program has encountered funding shortfalls 11 times before, and these were always fixed by reallocating payroll tax revenues among the trust funds to account for demographic shifts. As the eight former Social Security commissioners put it in their letter, Social Security actuaries predicted similar action would be needed in 2016, and “they were right on target.”

All this is important context for covering the trustees’ report and beyond.


Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from @Trudy_Lieberman and the rest of the United States Project team.


Related stories:
How the Media Has Shaped the Social Security Debate

The making of a meme

Meet the debt fixers

If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.