Misleading, Myth-Based Reporting Risks Giving Cover to Slash Vital Programs

“She took the family to McDonald’s because they liked it, even though she knew they couldn’t afford to eat out. She went through more pain pills than she needed, and every few weeks, when those pills ran low, like today, she returned to the doctor for more.”
— “Generations, Disabled,” by Terrence McCoy (Washington Post, 6/2/17)

Janine Jackson: Listeners may know the Washington Post gave itself a motto recently, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Outlets like the Post are talking a pretty good game these days about defending the public interest and the public’s right to accurate information. But it’s difficult to see how the paper can believe it’s serving either of those goals with its new series on Social Security disability benefits and beneficiaries.

Here to help us see what’s going on in this series is Rebecca Vallas. She’s managing director for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Rebecca Vallas.

Rebecca Vallas: Thanks so much for having me on, and especially on such an important and poorly covered topic.

I know that you have spent a lot of time working on issues of Social Security Disability Insurance, and Supplemental Security Income for workers with disabilities in particular, so I can only imagine what journalism like this calls up for you. If you could start with the first installment in this Post series — we’ve seen two so far; the first one ran in late March. For those who didn’t see it, tell us what story the Post was presenting under the headline “Disabled, or Just Desperate?”

I think it is important to start with the first piece, because this is the Washington Post launching a massive and deeply invested-in, year-long series on Social Security disability, and in particular focusing on receipt of disability benefits in rural America. Following up on November’s election, that’s their focus: what’s going on in rural America, where we know voters disproportionately placed their bets on Trump.

So that first installment in this series, “Disabled, or Just Desperate?,” painted an incredibly bleak picture of rural America. It was sort of a dystopian portrait of Social Security disability benefits out of control, everyone on disability — that was the conclusion a reader would come away with. Unfortunately, what that piece really did was to perpetuate so many myths and stereotypes about these programs and their beneficiaries.

The facts here were what was glaringly missing from this coverage, and that’s true in both pieces. For example, that it’s hard to qualify for benefits, that the vast majority of people who apply are actually denied, and that benefits are incredibly modest and very hard to live on. The fact that the United States has the strictest disability standard in the entire developed world — all of that missing, and instead this picture of everyone supposedly receiving disability benefits, because they have lost their jobs and have nothing else to turn to.

That piece did have a central assertion, which was that one-third of working age adults in rural communities are living on disability checks. One-third. And when you all looked into that — it wasn’t just that the piece had depressing anecdotes and some very frustrating tropes and all of that, but this central assertion turns out to be way off the mark.

That’s exactly right. There was sort of this first cut where we all read it, and a lot of folks who know the facts and who know these programs said, whoa, this is really misleading. But our economist here at the Center for American Progress took a really close look at the numbers in that story underpinning what you just said, the claim that as many as one in three Americans, working-age Americans in rural America, are supposedly receiving disability benefits, and what we found is that that allegation was actually true nowhere in this country, and the closest that you’re able to get to it is in one single county, one county in the entire United States, where it’s even close to true. And actually the average percentage in the rural counties that the Post looks at, of working-age folks receiving disability benefits, is about 9 percent. A lot less dramatic and a lot less clickbait when you actually use numbers in a meaningful and accurate way.

Just to underscore, they chose for their site of their reporting a county that had a disproportionately high rate, isn’t that right?

That’s exactly right, and actually one of the counties with some of the highest rates of disability benefit receipt in the country. So it’s hard not to view that as cherry-picking.

Exactly. Well, OK. And so they run actually a correction, because they know they got some facts wrong, but even then, they’re still wrong in the premise and the thrust of the piece. But one crosses their fingers for the next installment, and then we get the next installment, “Generations, Disabled.” What can you tell us about that piece?

Well, I have to say I was crossing my fingers with the rest of us all, saying, you know what, the Post realizes that they screwed up; they took tremendous amounts of criticism after that first piece; disability organizations, organizations like CAP, organizations like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, all raising their voices, saying, wait a second, let’s zoom out and actually look at the facts here. And so I think there was some level of hope that, well, maybe their second piece in this series was going to be a little bit more careful, a little bit less of that sort of mean-spirited stereotype-peddling that we saw with the first.

But unfortunately — and I’ve uncrossed my fingers now, having read the second piece — the second piece is even more cartoonish and offensive than the first. What it paints is a picture, not just of a “culture of disability” like the first piece, but rather it makes much of the fact that there might be families in the United States of America, multi-generational families, where more than one person receives disability benefits.

But backing up to what makes the way that it painted that picture so deeply offensive, even in just the subhead of the article, before you even get to the article itself, it goes so far as to allege that families pray — literally, the word “pray” — for their loved ones and their children to become sick or disabled in hopes of receiving benefits. Well, I’ve got news for the Washington Post: Nobody prays for disability or for illness, on their own part or on the part of their children or their families. It’s really a disgusting and deeply offensive allegation, and not even one that’s even supported by their own reporting.

They follow a family — again, sort of anecdote-based journalism, like the first — but they follow a family with multiple people in the household who have disabilities, and they speak with the mother, who says that she’s been praying for the right diagnosis, which, for folks who understand the reality of caring for children with disabilities, and seeking to get them the best medical care that you can, praying for the right diagnosis is absolutely what many folks end up having to do, so that they can get their children the care that they need.

One of the most important pieces of information that this second installment in the series is missing, actually, is even featured in a data sidebar, but is not contemplated anywhere in the piece itself, and that’s that disability often runs in families. There are a lot of reasons for that, and particularly in rural America, whether it’s because siblings may experience similar disabilities due to genetics or shared exposure to environmental hazards or common barriers to healthcare — maybe there are doctor shortages or lack of health insurance, lots of reasons why this happens. And yet through this anecdote-driven journalism, devoid of key facts and context, we see this damning portrait of disability benefits that really risks tremendous consequences, and I hope we can get into that as well.

Well, that’s just where I wanted to go, because it’s poor journalism, and we can see that on a number of levels, but it’s also dangerous, as you point out. And what exactly do you mean by that?

Well, so there are a lot of reasons why this kind of reporting is not just offensive, not just misleading, but that it actually really does risk having very real, very human consequences for the worse. And we need to look no further than 1996, when Congress moved forward and Bill Clinton signed into law something that today is usually referred to as “welfare reform,” but which was a massive slashing and structural change to our cash assistance system in this country.

Leading up to that, what we saw was a flurry of news reports that gave birth to the myth of the “welfare queen,” this concept that President Reagan popularized and then sort of became the story that wouldn’t go away, this concept of a single mom — a very racialized concept, usually a mom of color — with many children and who was popping out babies supposedly to get those, quote unquote, “welfare checks.”

What we saw was the evisceration of cash assistance for poor families with children in this country, very much driven by that flurry of news reports that drove, not just public misunderstanding of income assistance in this country, but also really, in many ways, congressional heat that members of Congress, on a bipartisan basis, felt they had to address. So what we are currently watching right now is 1996 all over again, but with that myth of the welfare queen now transposed onto the face of people who need to turn to disability benefits.

And this is a very timely conversation to be having as we stare down the barrel of President Trump’s proposed budget, and in a couple of weeks, congressional Republicans moving forward with their own budget. Trump’s budget slashed the very parts of Social Security that people with disabilities, like the ones highlighted in this reporting, rely on to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. And so what this kind of misleading and myth-based reporting risks doing is giving cover to slash those vital programs, even though it isn’t something that the American people are asking for, until they’re force-fed these myths to weaken support for these programs.

We’ve been speaking with Rebecca Vallas. She’s managing director for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. Rebecca Vallas, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thanks so much for having me back.