A series of reports about federal disability benefits that aired recently on NPR is getting a flurry of criticism from advocates for the disabled.
The series, "Unfit for Work: The startling rise of disability in America" by Planet Money reporter Chana Jaffe-Walt, examines a rise in Americans getting disability pay over the last few decades and presents a startling conclusion.
"Some of that growth is due to a changing jobs market," said Jaffe-Walt. "Workers finding it increasingly difficult to get a job are using the disability program as a sort of last resort."
Among those objecting to the series is Rebecca Vallas, co-chair of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Social Security Task Force and staff attorney for Community Legal Services.
She joins a chorus of advocates criticizing Jaffe-Walt's over-reliance on anecdotal evidence to make sweeping generalizations about federal disability benefits.
Vallas says her single biggest beef with the series and its message is that it's missing a lot of key information and context.
"It completely misses the largest drivers of growth," she said.
The two factors that Vallas says explain nearly all the growth described in the series are the aging of baby boomers into their high-disability years, and the unprecedented number of women who entered the workforce in the '70s and '80s, she said.
Another key point the series is missing, said Vallas, is that most disability applicants are denied. She said it's an incredibly common misconception that it's easy to get benefits.
"The conversation that we really ought to be having, and that I really wish we were having more often in the media and elsewhere, is: What can we do to take these programs and strengthen them and build on them?" she said. "There's a lot of proposals out there that should be taken seriously and that should be getting attention."
Another thing ghat she says needs more attention is adequacy of benefits. "We need to look at whether benefit amounts are keeping pace with the cost of living and with inflation and whether they're sufficient to enable a person with a severe disability to really live with dignity and to meet their basic needs."
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