The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 6, 2017

For the real story on disability, look at the data

June 7, 2017

In “Generations, disabled,” Washington Post reporter Terrence McCoy tells the story of a three-generation family in Missouri who receives “federal disability checks.”

It’s classic shoe-leather reporting, describing the challenges of family members facing assorted illnesses and disabilities. But the article fails to tell an accurate story about health, disabilities, poverty, and the government programs that support disabled people.

Defining “disability”

The phrase “on disability” appears in the article 10 times, but it’s never defined. In the United States, several programs support people with disabilities, including the Social Security Disability Insurance Program (DI), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid, and workers’ compensation.

Some of those programs, like SSI, are means-tested, meaning that the person (or family) needs to have a disability and very low income. Other programs, such as DI, are work-tested, meaning that an applicant must have a disability and must have worked for a certain amount of time. Without at least discussing these different programs and how they work, the article bundles all disability programs into a single, mysterious bucket.

The story also presents incomplete supporting data without context. A sidebar graph shows the “percent of households with a disabled child and no disabled adults or one or more disabled adults,” as reported by the American Community Survey (ACS). These data are not about families receiving DI or SSI benefits, but about the prevalence of disability. That is an important distinction and one that does not come through in the text.

Without further description, placing the graph next to the article suggests disability and federal disability payments (whatever those are) are the same thing. The casual reader might believe these data are about DI benefit receipt.

It’s difficult to tabulate DI receipt from ACS data because we don’t always know what program people are referring to when they estimate income from “disability benefits.” The Census Bureau asks about Social Security income, which could include retirement benefits, spousal benefits, or disability benefits. Census also asks about health insurance through Medicaid and other sources, as well as retirement income, which could come from a previous job.

Recent research shows growing concerns about the quality of survey data generally. McCoy relies on ACS questions about disability, not about disability income receipt. Thus, these ACS data suggest that in families with disabilities in several generations, those disabilities may have other underlying causes, such as genetics, exposure to environmental hazards, and poor local health care facilities. Poor health may be driven by factors other than a family’s effort to rely on, or abuse, a public program like DI, as McCoy seems to suggest.

Having a disability doesn’t always mean being “on disability”

Not everyone who has a disability receives DI benefits. People qualify for DI by proving they have a “substantial” impairment that prevents them from working and is expected to last at least 12 months or lead to death.

More than 12 million people received DI benefits in 2015, but more than half of applicants are denied their claim. Data from the Social Security Administration show that for claims filed from 2001 through 2010, nearly 45 percent of people were awarded benefits. People who are awarded benefits on their initial application can wait about four months before receiving notification that their application has been awarded. Other applicants can wait more than 33 months to go through the appeal and hearing process.

In “Generations, disabled,” the family’s two children are denied benefits, a decision for which the family seeks an appeal. This is how the system is designed to work. A screening process exists, and families must demonstrate that they qualify for benefits. It’s not, as the author seems to suggest, a program that simply hands out money to anyone who applies.

Narratives are important, but data can help tell the full story

McCoy’s effort to highlight the challenges families with disabilities face is important. Stories that readers can identify with help educate the public about complicated public policy topics.

But in this case, the author relies too heavily on the narrative and not enough on data and details. Simply using the term “on disability” conveys an attitude of reliance and dependence on government instead of describing this family (and others) as ones who need support because of their disabilities.

As such, the article implicitly suggests rampant abuse of disability programs. The subhead—“A family on the fringes prays for the ‘right diagnoses’”—implies that this family has an unwarranted reliance on the government.

As the DI program faces significant financial challenges and the Trump administration and some members of Congress propose to cut expenditures on many programs that support poor families (see here, here, and here, for example), journalists should perhaps rely more on data and less on single narratives meant to represent an entire population.

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