If you doubt that AP would write a story to make this point, you guessed correctly. AP actually decided it was REALLY BIG NEWS that Social Security’s inspector general found evidence that 0.2 percent of payments were improper.
The news service devoted a major article to reporting that $2 billion in benefit payments over the last seven years appear to have been given to people who did not qualify for disability. The piece neglected to mention that the program paid out close to $900 billion in benefits over that period. This means that improper payments identified in the inspector general’s report were less than 0.3 percent of the total payments in the program.
Since the piece does not provide any context it is likely that many people will be led to believe that the disability program is rife with fraud when in fact the report is indicating the opposite. It would be great if improper payments were zero, but in a program that pays out $140 billion in benefits every year, this is not going to happen. It makes sense to try to reduce improper payments as much as possible, but it doesn’t make sense to spend $10 billion to eliminate $2 billion in improper payments.
It is also important to note that there are undoubtedly people who should be getting disability who have been wrongfully denied benefit. We could have workers dying of cancer or unable to work due a heart attack or stroke or other disability who an a judge somehow decided was not eligible. If we put more pressure on judges to turn down claims then there will be more people improperly denied benefits.
There is another important point to keep in mind when the media decided to highlight relatively small amounts of waste or improper payments in government programs. AP has this information because the government investigated its own payment practices and issued a public report. Walmart, GE, and other private companies don’t disclose instances of fraud and improper payments so we aren’t likely to read AP stories about the waste and abuse in the private sector. (They could do their own investigations, but that’s another story.)
Anyhow, if we start hearing political hysteria over $2 BILLION in improper disability payments over the coming months, remember to have sympathy for the folks who have problems with big numbers.