July 23, 2017
The Washington Post has devoted enormous resources to trying to convince its readers that the federal government’s disability programs are in crisis. And it has no qualms about misrepresenting the data to make its case.
Today we got a great example in a question and answer session in reference to its latest major feature piece. In answer to the question, “what’s the problem?” it tells readers:
“The program for disabled workers, which Congress had to rescue from insolvency in 2015, is estimated to go broke again sometime over the next decade or so. The government this year is expected to spend $192 billion on disability payments — more than the combined total that will be spent on welfare, unemployment benefits, housing subsidies and food stamps.”
The assertion that the program will go broke is extremely misleading. Even if Congress never did anything it could still pay will over 90 percent of projected benefits for more than two decades into the future and even at the end of the 75-year planning period, it is still projected to be able to pay over 80 percent of scheduled benefits.
This is an important point since many politicians have advocated cutting benefits to keep the program fully funded. If the point is to ensure to prevent benefits from being cut due to a shortfall, cutting benefits to make up the gap doesn’t help.
It is also worth noting that the $192 billion figure includes the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program which is funded out of general revenue, not a payroll tax. While it can make sense to combine the programs as disability programs, in doing so it would be worth noting the third program in this category, workers’ compensation. Most states have substantially reduced the generosity of their Workers Compensation programs over the last three decades. As a result, the total amount spent on disability as a share of GDP has not increased by very much over this period.
The comparison to “welfare, unemployment benefits, housing subsidies and food stamps” is also misleading, since we actually spend very little on these programs even though the public perception is that they comprise a large share of the budget. The Post presumably knows the public hugely overestimates the share of the budget spent on these programs so why would it use them as a base of comparison, unless the point is to create the impression that these disability programs are a very big share of the budget.
It actually would not be hard to convey the spending in a way that would be meaningful to most readers. It is equal to roughly 1.0 percent of GDP. It is a bit less than 5.0 percent of total federal spending. Alternatively, it is a bit more than 30 percent of projected military spending for 2017.