Info Gluttony

Don’t be deceived by Chana Jaffe-Walt’s This American Life / Planet Money piece on Federal Disability

Posted in personal, politics by echan on March 23, 2013

Addendum (3/25/13): Since this was posted two days ago, someone at TAL / PM has made changes to the web supplement. An original version of the story that circulated on the TAL website can be found here. Two instances of the changes are pointed out here and here.


This American Life and Planet Money are two very trusted brands on public radio. On a standard Saturday afternoon, you’ll find me nursing a post-dim sum food coma and folding laundry listening to Ira Glass and friends. I looked to Planet Money to break down the subprime crisis for me into easily digestible nuggets. And I’ve opened my wallet for $10 donations to fund the TAL podcast.

It’s with this sense of trust, that I must now turn to Chana Joffe-Walt’s biased take down of SSDI and SSI for This American Life and Planet money. I read it on my commute to work yesterday at a non-profit that focuses on helping very sick adults with HIV and/or mental health issues obtain access to these benefits. This is a very difficult job and my compensation is pocket change compared to my old big firm law gig, but it’s rewarding in other ways.  I’m part of a web of social workers, doctors, nurses, and case managers trying to stabilize the most vulnerable members of our community. My clients do not want to be disabled. Many want to work and work up to the point when their symptoms become too severe for them to continue.  The SSA is a bureaucracy, and sometimes, analysts there will miss or ignore key medical evidence, and an appeal can delay a client’s benefits for 3 or 4 years, depending on how many levels of appeal are necessary. Helping these clients get onto SSI/SSDI serves a public health purpose because once they are on benefits, they can work on stabilizing their health and gain access to affordable housing programs. Almost any public interest attorney in my area could tell you what I’m saying in this paragraph (and most people who apply for these benefits, if they are lucky enough to have an attorney at all, rely on public interest attorneys, not private firms). Although Ms. Joffe-Walt said that she’s researched this issue for “6 months” there’s not a quote or a data point from a single public interest / legal aid attorney anywhere in her piece.

A have a lot of little nits to pick with Ms. Joffe-Walt’s print story, but one of the things that irks me the most is the deceptive beauty of its design and layout. “It’s just so pretty, it must be true!” is one of the easy takeaways the standard TAL audience can have from scanning through this piece. It’s so convincing in its simplicity, that I’m worried that the parts of TAL – Planet Money audience who work with my clients will be more hesitant to write letters of support for my clients because they will be too worried about the growth of disability programs in the U.S. As Jeff Deeney pointed out on Twitter, “@planetmoney @itschana Getting benefits for severely mentally ill clients who can’t apply themselves is really hard. You aren’t helping us.”

The most infuriating thing is how Ms. Joffe-Walt groups in the entire 14 million people on SSDI/SSI benefits into one giant, tax dollar sucking mass.  She gives them an agency that they do not have. As another person (sorry, I forgot who) pointed out, she writes the following:

But going on disability means you will not work, you will not get a raise, you will not get whatever meaning people get from work. Going on disability means, assuming you rely only on those disability payments, you will be poor for the rest of your life. That’s the deal. And it’s a deal 14 million Americans have chosen for themselves. (Emphasis added). [See addendum above this language been subsequently edited by TAL / PM / HJW].

While there are a few bad apples who are gaming the system out there, the vast majority of the 14 million people receiving these benefits are legitimately disabled and cannot work.  Some are dying from fast-advancing cancer. My very own younger sister, who is in her 30’s, receives these benefits because her cognitive age is 2-years-old. 2-years-old! There is no way that she can ever work, let alone be left by herself for a single moment of the day.  But because of sloppy and biased reporting like Ms. Joffe-Walt’s (and Fox News), there are members of my extended family who look at my sister as a horrible tax burden on society, rather than as a vulnerable person who cannot fend for herself. My sister did not choose to be born with this brain damage. My clients do not choose to be sick. The agency that Ms. Joffe-Walt ascribes to this group further magnifies the extreme stigma people with disabilities already face.

While my practice does not include children who receive SSI, parents of children with disabilities have an incredibly difficult time obtaining these services. Part of my motivation to practice this area of law stemmed from my single mother’s experience. She struggled to raise us, and my sister did not obtain SSI until she was an adult. My sister never received her rightful childhood benefits because no social worker or lawyer ever guided my mother in that direction when my sister was still a minor.  My mother did not know these benefits even existed. This story is much more common than the anecdotes fed to us by Ms. Jaffe-Walt. And Media Matters has done an excellent, detailed debunking of the other Child SSI benefit “facts” in Ms. Jaffe-Walt’s piece.

Also, the disabled in America are one of the most stepped upon groups in our society, and do not make up a nefarious “disability-industrial complex.” There isn’t a strong lobby for parents of disabled children. Every year, there are budgetary fights over cuts to essential programs that help keep disabled people in their homes, instead of ending up in institutions. And the real travesty of SSI is that the resource cap to receive SSI has been set at $2000 for an individual since 1989, and has not been raised or adjusted for inflation since that time. That means that someone on SSI must live a perilous existence, without even the ability to have an emergency fund or to save up enough money for an apartment deposit. They are forced to live check-to-check due to these extremely low resource limits.

Finally, I work in direct services, not public policy in this area, so I will point you to the policy-oriented discussion on this story taking shape on Rebecca Vallas’s Twitter stream. I realize that Twitter is ephemeral, so here are a few tweets to archive on this topic.