I had the extreme displeasure of reading Kristof’s long Sunday piece on out-of-control rural Kentuckian welfare cheats. According to some random person Kristof met in Kentucky, a bunch of people there try to make their kids really stupid and illiterate so that they can claim them as disabled and collect mountains of government cash. And by mountains I mean $600/month. Like any responsible journalist would do, Kristof decided that typing some things into the google to see whether this made any remote sense was unnecessary. After all, what more do you need than second-hand anecdotes from Billie Oaks of Breathitt County, Kentucky. If you can’t trust Billie Oaks, who can you trust?
Immediately after reading the article, my mind lit up with thoughts of all of the ridiculous ideology packed deep inside Kristof’s assessment. I did not know if any of his factual claims were true: I’ve never even heard of this program. My natural reaction to claims I know nothing about is to say: assuming all the facts you say are true, what does that tell us? I am pretty sure, for instance, that the existence of some mysterious underclass of Kentuckian welfare cheats does not lead us naturally to the conclusion that we need to ramp up marriages and home visits. I am also pretty sure that vague hand-waiving about “opportunity” isn’t going to fix Appalachia either.
But it turns out that these sorts of even-if-you-are-right counterarguments are not necessary here. Billie Oaks — his lone primary source for his broad assessment of the state of SSI — led him astray. The Center for Economic and Policy Research thought it might be a neat little curveball to ask the published experts on the topic to detail how well SSI is doing using the journalistic scourge we call data. Their data-driven assessment slightly differs:
In the real world, these two things — basic economic supports for low-income parents caring for severely disabled children and educational initiatives — are complementary. As Rebecca Vallas and I have documented, in papers for the National Academy of Social Insurance and the Center for American Progress, the data show that Supplemental Security reduces family economic insecurity and supports parents’ efforts to best care for their severely disabled children.
Angus Johnston, methodological innovator of our time, decided to just read through the data the Social Security Administration collects on this program. The SSA’s survey also tells a much different story than Billie Oaks. Among other things (read the whole list), half of those on the SSI “dole” went to the emergency room last year, seventeen percent got surgery, and nearly seventy percent saw a doctor three or more times in the year. Talk about dedication to a grift!
In addition to Johnston’s rundown of the SSI data, I was personally curious about how many children are actually in this program. The survey data was last published in 2001-2002. I combined its figures with the 2001 Census (more methodological innovating on my part) to calculate that about 1.1% of children receive SSI benefits. Now I know what you are thinking: holy God that is an unbelievable figure. Why not just give everyone SSI benefits if the figure is that high? Clearly this is a program out of control, riddled with welfare cheats making their kids illiterate. Billie Oaks has been vindicated after all. Not so fast though: in 2010, the Census reported that 8.4% of kids below the age of 15 have a disability, and half of those have severe disabilities. If anything, it would seem, SSI is underutilized.
Publishing something like this is just wildly irresponsible. This is the greatest newspaper in the country with the most resources in the country, and it is allowing some sort of half-conscious jackal to publish long Sunday pieces based on rumors the venerable Billie Oaks fed him. And it is not just passive rumors of no consequence. Hundreds of thousands of families rely on SSI to give them the capabilities necessary to raise their disabled children. We already live in a country deeply hostile to social welfare programs: we certainly do not need lazy idiots helping that hostility along in the paper of note.