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If Being Disabled Were Not Bad Enough

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By Scott B. Elkind, Esq.

During the last few months, the New York Times and National Public Radio have repeatedly argued that disabled persons are cheating the Social Security Disability system. A recent article by NYT columnist, Nicholas Kristof, cited "some poor families in Kentucky" who were pulling their children out of literacy classes for fear that it would disqualify them from SSI benefits. In other words, disability benefits serve as a perverse incentive for people not to seek independence from welfare program benefits.

A little clarity is definitely called for at this point. First, the average amount paid to disabled person is approximately $1200/month. Child SSI benefits are about half that amount. Further, child SSI benefits are not based on reading skill alone. Rather, they are based on actual medical diagnoses (ADHD, mental illness, etc.) which require more than solely illiteracy for qualification.

So, if "some Kentucky families" withdraw their children from the program, it would only serve to demonstrate that the illiterate apple does not fall far from the illiterate tree. Nonetheless, such a small sample should never be cause for alarm and is not the fodder for making a broad national argument concerning the entitlement of disability benefits by millions of deserving claimants. It is only another case of sensationalistic journalism to draw attention to a situation for the purpose of selling papers or creating ad revenue. If it were only that simple.....

In the end, this story has been completely debunked as Mr. Kristof relied upon the hearsay of a single individual without checking any actual statistics or finding any persons who withdrew their kids from literacy programs. Instead, he went with the stereotypical "stupid hillbilly" story without any factual basis for his assertions and earned him rebuke from his own editor.

Of course, few people pay attention to the outing of the unsubstantiated story which never garners the headlines that the initial unfounded sensational story attained.

NPR's shows "Planet Money"and "All Things Considered" have chosen adult disabled recipients to be tied to its whipping post. Their strong evidence for the position that disabled people are cheating is that one of the show editors has a herniated disc and "works harder" than anyone else they know. Again, no evidence that supports the case to be made. Interestingly, the fact that "Planet Money" has a three year advertising contract with Lincoln Financial who underwrites private disability insurance through its subsidiary Lincoln National Life Insurance Company is never mentioned.

It is of little surprise that other media outlets have been latecomers on the "Bash the Disabled Train" and have tried to cash in on this "disability con" story. Other piling-on offenders include The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Investor's Business Daily, Fox News, and Time.com.

The problems with the increasing disability influx has to do with the aging of this nation and not a perverse incentive crisis as these media outlets have tried to invent. At a time when creative solutions would be welcomed, the media has turned to cheapest form of scapegoatism instead. Little positive can be said of such tactics which are representative of what qualifies as "journalism" these days. We all need to demand more of our pundits, especially facts on which they base their skewed viewpoints.

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