The Washington Post’s Reporting on Disability Is Giving Trump Cover for Disability Cuts

by  Rebecca Vallas

talk poverty | June 02, 2017

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

The Washington Post is out with the second in a series of articles pushing the nastiest of myths about Social Security disability benefits and the people who rely on them.

Their latest article, titled “Generations, disabled,” doubles down on seriously flawed reporting that The Post began in March. This time the author, Terrence McCoy, profiles a family in Missouri struggling with poverty and health-related challenges. McCoy takes aim at many aspects of their lives, but the one he reserves the most scorn for—the fact that more than one person in the family receives disability benefits—mirrors the same disability cuts Trump called for in last week’s budget proposal.

The piece immediately drew deserved criticism on social media from a range of respected journalists and experts including The Atlantic’s Annie Lowry, Vox’s Matt Yglesias and Dylan Matthews, and former National Economic Council Chairman Gene Sperling.


Would love it if this Post story showed any data demonstrating that the growth in SSDI is due to cultural factors. 

Photo published for One family. Four generations of disability benefits. Will it continue?

One family. Four generations of disability benefits. Will it continue?

A family on the fringes prays for the ‘right diagnoses.’

SSDI is one program that mainstream and even liberal media outlets have done a lot to demonize and weaken 

Like the first article in The Post’s series, the latest story willfully ignores the reality of Social Security disability benefits, instead relying on flawed data and flowery writing and anecdotes to paint a cartoonish picture of rural America overtaken by a “culture of disability.” As my colleague Kate Gallagher Robbins pointed out on Twitter, the piece reads like a work of fiction. It even opens with a stage-setting mini-story practically ripped from Of Mice and Men, in which a child accidentally drops and nearly kills his new puppy.

Notably, where the piece does introduce evidence beyond richly woven anecdote, what evidence it includes contradicts The Post’s narrative.

Case in point: The article makes much of the fact that multiple family members, such as a parent and a child, might receive disability benefits. Yet the article’s text makes no mention of the data featured in a sidebar, which tell the real story here: that disability often runs in families. But The Post would rather blame the lifeboat for the flood.

You wouldn’t know it from The Post’s reporting, but as my colleagues and I have pointed out time and again—including in our multipleresponses to The Post’s previous go-round on disability—Social Security disability benefits are incredibly hard to get. The vast majority of applicants are denied, and fewer than 4 in 10 Social Security Disability Insurance applicants are approved, even after all stages of appeal. For those who do receive benefits, they are modest—barely enough to bring many disability beneficiaries far above the federal poverty line.

A set of personal testimonials tacked on as an addendum to the article tells the real story of disability benefits. These reader stories offer a more accurate description of what these benefits mean to people who rely on them to make ends meet—and the immense challenges that living with a disability or chronic illness can bring. Kudos to The Post for including them—but disappointingly, they appear to be an afterthought that failed to penetrate the paper’s reporting on these programs.

This kind of reporting isn’t just stigmatizing and misleading—it’s dangerous. A flurry of anecdote-based media accounts in the late 1980s and early 1990s—which created the original “welfare queen” myth—paved the way for politicians to dismantle cash assistance for poor families with children in the name of “welfare reform.” In the 25 years since, the share of poor families with kids helped by the shell of a program that remains—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—has dropped from 8 in 10 to fewer than 1 in 4.

The current political climate, paired with The Washington Post’s reporting, is setting disability benefits to meet the same fate as cash assistance. Just last week, President Trump proposed a whopping $72 billion in cuts to these disability programs in his budget. Before this series, I would have expected better from The Post than to give cover to such cruel and heartless cuts.



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