“There is a quiet, covert war being waged on Social Security. The tactic? Divide and conquer. Today, detractors try to use Social Security Disability Insurance as a back door to cut the program as a whole. And, we will organize and fight back against today’s attacks aimed at some of the most vulnerable Americans: the disabled.”  Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH)

Divide and conquer politics is certainly nothing new in Washington.  From Ronald Reagan’s mythological nation of “welfare queens” to Alan Simpson’s “greedy geezer” myth of hordes of seniors driving Lexus’ to their gated communities – politicians love to create villains, even if the facts simply don’t back up the political spin.

"It hangs together as a good story because it's consistent with people's perception of the real world," says Craig R. Smith, who was a speechwriter for former President Gerald Ford and a consulting writer with President George H.W. Bush.  "Like in any good mythology, you need heroes and villains and in the Welfare Queen, you had a villain who was taking advantage of the system."

And so it goes with conservatives’ latest target – disabled Americans receiving Social Security benefits. No doubt, you’ve already heard the messaging: Social Security disability fraud is rampant because it’s so easy to receive benefits and people would rather collect a hefty check from the government than work.  It’s the 2014 incarnation of “our nation is full of ‘welfare queens’ and ‘greedy geezers.’” It also suffers from the same basic problem...it’s simply not true.

So let’s break down a few of these Disability Myths.

MYTH: “Disability has become a form of permanent welfare for a lot of folks. It's not that hard to prove a mental illness, or mental issues, or pain issues.” Nina Easton, Fox News commentator

Not that hard?  So, why are the vast majority of claims denied?

FACT: “Nearly 80 percent of applicants are denied at the initial level, and fewer than 4 in 10 are approved after all levels of appeal. Underscoring the strictness of the disability standard, thousands of applicants die each year while waiting for benefits. And one in five male and nearly one in six female beneficiaries die within five years of being approved for benefits. Disability Insurance beneficiaries have death rates three to six times higher than other people their age.” Center for American Progress

It’s seems pretty ridiculous to claim the system’s being widely-abused when so many die just years after receiving benefits or while they’re still waiting for an answer.

MYTH:  Growth in disability claims is “astonishing”, an “epidemic” and “startling.” 

Actually, it’s called demographics.  Ever heard of the baby boomers? Former SSA Commissioners from both Republican and Democratic administrations have taken issue with this fact-free, hysteria-laden portrayal of the disability program’s growth.

FACT:  “It is true that DI has grown significantly in the past 30 years. The growth that we’ve seen was predicted by actuaries as early as 1994 and is mostly the result of two factors: baby boomers entering their high -disability years, and women entering the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s so that more are now "insured" for DI based on their own prior contributions.” Open Letter from former SSA Commissioners

 “...four-fifths of the program’s total enrollment in 2013 — and over two-thirds of the growth in enrollment since 1980 — stems from five easily quantifiable factors:  growth in the overall working-age population, the aging of that population, growth in women’s labor force participation, the rise in Social Security’s full retirement age, and the growth in DI receipt among women eligible for benefits to match men’s rate of receipt. In short, the factors driving DI’s growth are reasonably well understood, were long anticipated, and do not depict a program that is ‘out of control.’” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

“As Baby Boomers retire, the program’s growth has already leveled off and is projected to decline further in the coming years.”  Center for American Progress

MYTH:  The entire system is “broken,” rife with “fraud” and “rubber-stamping judges” bankrupting the entire Social Security program.

 FACT:  The Government Accountability Office found that improper payments of Social Security benefits that include Disability Insurance had an error rate of just 0.6 percent. Government Accountability Office

 An investigation by the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General looked at the 10 states with the highest increase in disability applications from 2007-2011.  That report found that while the number of applications increased...approvals declined. Social Security Administration OIG

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) is a leading promoter of the Disability Myths. .  His committee has zeroed in on the casework of just four out of 1,400 disability judges to bolster his claims of widespread fraud in the program. 

“Issa's report twists all these facts and figures to create a fantasy of a program running amuck. He says "an extraordinary number" of administrative judges "were allowing the vast majority of their decisions"; in fact the overall approval rate of cases that come before the judges is 58%.”  Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times

“First, these judges were deliberately selected by the House Oversight Committee because they were outliers who approve a high percentage of the cases brought to them. The Social Security Administration has almost 1400 administrative judges. Undoubtedly many are also outliers on the other side, denying most of the cases brought to them.” Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research

“...not all judges are "rubber-stamping" disability claims, and the overall allowance rate fell from 72 percent in 2005 to 56 percent last year.” Andrew Biggs, American Enterprise Institute   

The timing of this attack on Social Security’s disability program is not an accident. It’s the cornerstone of Congressional Republicans’ campaign to oppose both President Obama’s nomination of a new Social Security Administration Commissioner and (what in the past has been) the routine reallocation of the Trust Fund to prevent a 20% disability benefit cut in 2016.

Rather than address the disability shortfall head-on, as so many Congresses have before, conservatives hope to hold the disability program hostage in return for cuts throughout the entire Social Security program.

“Playing chicken with the trust fund would be devastating, Ruffing said. “If Congress allows the disability trust fund to run dry, then what will happen is benefits to all recipients will be cut by approximately 20 percent, which is obviously an unacceptable outcome,” she said. “It’s a completely unnecessary form of brinkmanship.” Kathy Ruffing, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities on NBC News

 “Since Social Security was enacted, Congress has "reallocated" payroll tax revenues across the OASI and DI trust funds – about equally in both directions – some 11 times to account for demographic shifts. In 1994, the last time such reallocation occurred, SSA actuaries projected that similar action would next be required in 2016. They were right on target.” Open Letter from former SSA Commissioners

“Reallocation is a straightforward process and the need for it does not come as a surprise,” Virginia P. Reno, NASI Vice President for Income Security Policy

Just as with Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” story, there is no doubt that fraud exists. But it’s clearly not what Disability Mythologists claim.  As Social Security advocates, we’ve long supported efforts to crack down on fraud and abuse because strong Social Security and Medicare programs depend on the efficient and appropriate payment of benefits only to those who qualify.  The American people expect the contributions they’ve made throughout their working lives will be spent appropriately.  So, if it is possible to further rid Social Security’s disability program of it’s tiny percentage of fraudulent claims then we whole-heartedly support those efforts. 

However, let’s be very clear about one thing -- that’s not what the Disability Myth is all about.  This isn’t a debate between one side that supports Social Security fraud and those who oppose it.  This is a debate between those who refuse to allow Americans with disabilities to be held as political hostages with threats of a 20% benefit cut by those whose true goal is to cut the entire Social Security program, through privatization or countless other means. That’s the ultimate goal of this divide and conquer strategy which portrays America’s disabled workers, the same people who have paid for their earned benefits, as villains.

We’ll end just as we began, with this warning from Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH):

“Opponents of Social Security realize that when they attack the program head on, they lose. So, their strategy is two-fold: First, convince the public that the disability insurance program is bankrupt. Second, separate Social Security from disability insurance in the eyes of voters. We need to recognize these attacks for what they are – backdoor attempts to weaken Social Security by dismantling disability insurance.”