As an attorney who represents Social Security Disability applicants on a daily basis, I was very disturbed by a recent 60 Minutes piece, which falsely portrayed the way the Social Security Disability (SSD) system works. The segment was misleading in several ways and failed to provide any sense of balance in its approach to the subject. Here are the issues that troubled me most about the segment:
The show implied that the large increase in the number of claims is due to lax enforcement: The number of recipients of SSD benefits has steadily grown over the years, but the increase is not due to less stringent qualification standards. Americans, as a population, are getting older. Over the past several years, Baby Boomers have begun to hit retirement age in huge numbers. As Americans in this generation get older, they become more susceptible to injuries and illnesses that can cause them to become disabled and unable to work. In addition, the United States has been in a recession with very high unemployment rates since 2008. In this economic downturn, there are simply less job opportunities available for those with disabilities – they are often the last to get hired and the first to get laid off.
Although the number of disabled workers has been increasing since 1983, their growth as a percentage of the insured population has been considerably slower.
The program suggested that it was easy for anyone who applies for SSD to be approved and receive benefits: The reality is quite the opposite. About two-thirds of all applicants are initially denied, and not many more are approved after they appeal. The process itself can be quite difficult to navigate, even for someone who is ultimately successful. In our experience, just 41% of all applicants who start the process end up receiving benefits. This hardly seems like a system that is overly generous or easy for applicants to manipulate.
The presentation was shockingly biased: The only people interviewed for the piece were those on one side of the issue, essentially claiming that SSD fraud was rampant. There were no interviews with attorneys like myself who practice within the SSD system or with any applicants themselves. This lack of balance clearly indicates that the program was only designed to tell one side of the story.
I can only hope that most viewers will not form unfounded opinions about the SSD system based on the program’s misleading depictions. Viewers of CBS and 60 Minutes deserve better. I hope the network will air a follow-up program in which it provides a more honest look at the SSD system I know, and a fairer portrayal of those who are actually applying for benefits, most of whom desperately need them.
It’s important to remember that everything you see or hear on the internet or on television is not necessarily true. One only needs to look as far as 60 Minutes for another example: Their admitted misleading coverage of the consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya – and the conspiracy theories surrounding it – has further tarnished their reputation.