In 1936, when the original Social Security Act went into effect, sharecropper and folk musician John Handcox wrote a song about the desperate times Americans faced during the Depression: “There are mean things happening in this land/ Though the rich man boasts and brags/ while the poor man goes in rags/ there are mean things happening in this land.” Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security legislation sought to soften those mean times. In 1950, Social Security was expanded to include a minimum safety net for the disabled.
In the past few weeks, a growing storm of attacks against disabled Americans has been fueled by the repetition of inaccurate and dangerous myths about the Social Security disability program.
National Public Radio (NPR) recently aired a five-part series that, in many respects, demonized disabled Americans who receive Social Security Income (SSI) or Supplemental Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). The NPR report implies that disability benefit recipients, both adults and children, are slackers or are trying to scam the system, their deceit supported by the vast cabal of greedy lawyers, bleeding-heart doctors and SSDI judges who willingly give away unjustified awards of benefits at the drop of a hat. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Many people also question why those who look healthy deserve disability benefits.
These beliefs demonize Americans with intellectual difficulties, autism, and serious mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia because they don’t look disabled.
For the past 36 years, I have represented thousands of disabled people, both physically and mentally impaired, who have applied for SSI or SSDI. Contrary to what many people believe, and as NPR reported, those programs are not de facto welfare programs for people without a lot of education or job skills. The disability benefits my clients seek have prevented millions of Americans from slipping into deep poverty and homelessness. And for my clients who were homeless, I am certain their benefits prevented many from dying on our streets.
I can assure you that no one at Social Security is giving away the candy store. The agency’s legal definition of disability is the most restrictive and limiting definition of disability used by any program, public or private, in our country today. Only people who can prove with medical evidence that their documented conditions prevent them from performing any full-time “substantial, gainful” work on a reliable and consistent basis might receive disability benefits. In Seattle, a disturbing trend has recently developed at our own disability hearing office. Over the past three years, there has been a nearly 30 percent decline in the award of disability benefits by Social Security’s administrative law judges. Indeed, so far this year, one new social security judge has granted full benefits in only 6 percent of his cases.
The clear message in mainstream media is that many disabled recipients could work but choose not to because the disability payments and medical coverage are a better deal than a minimum wage job without health insurance. I cannot think of a single client who, when awarded his or her benefits, expressed relief that a lifetime goal had been achieved: receiving a monthly SSDI check, which currently amounts to $710 per month.
So where does that leave us? With a mainstream media that perpetuates untruths about the disabled and members of the public who don’t understand that what they see and hear about the disabled amount to myths. Not much has changed.
With these most recent attacks on America’s disabled, I think those who work with and for the disabled would agree with folk singer Handcox: “There are mean things happening in this land.”