Janine Jackson interviewed Social Security Works’ Alex Lawson about Social Security and disability for the January 3, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Corporate media’s image of Social Security is, at times quite literally, a gray-haired couple stacking pennies and smiling. Silly in multiple ways, that image, along with much of the accompanying reporting, renders invisible the millions of Social Security recipients who have a disability, not all of whom are seniors.
Media marginalization of disabled people partly explains the near lack of coverage when, just in time for the holidays, the Trump administration proposed a rule change that would make accessing Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income benefits even harder than it already is. The agency offered no medical or scientific justification for the departure from past practice, but they did suggest that they will get billions of dollars from it—somehow.
Alex Lawson is the executive director of the group Social Security Works. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Alex Lawson.
Alex Lawson: Thanks for having me.
JJ: We know that there’s more at work here than this one rule change. It’s bad enough on its own, but it’s part of something bigger. First of all, though, what’s the nature of this change that is being pushed right now?
AL: Basically, it’s putting up bureaucratic hurdles in front of people who are already faced with proving their eligibility for their own earned benefits in an incredibly difficult system, which is the Disability Insurance portion of Social Security.
We have incredibly stringent requirements on the disability benefits that are part of Social Security. What this would do is make people who have received the benefits, they’ve proven their eligibility, reprove themselves over and over and over again, sometimes as much as every six months. And this is an incredibly arduous process. So, that’s what they do; but the goal of it is actually to get people to give up. That’s exactly what happened when Ronald Reagan did this. And it led to tens of thousands of people dying.
And when they were kicked off their benefits, their benefits were ripped out of their hands—when that was looked at, around 60% of the people who had their benefits stolen from them were found to have wrongly had their benefits stolen from them, and were put back on. But in the meantime, you had tens of thousands of people die.
Now if you’re being really generous, you could say that Ronald Reagan didn’t know what was going to happen when he did this. But now? That’s why Mick Mulvaney is pushing Donald Trump to do it. Mick Mulvaney is a student of Ronald Reagan, and he’s the architect of this policy in the Trump White House.
JJ: Yeah, I mean, stories say the changes “might possibly” lead to people losing benefits, or that “critics say” they would. And that time’s past, you know: The sun’s gonna rise in the east, and increasing barriers to benefits is not going to weed out people illegitimately taking benefits, but it will kick people off of the rolls who need them to live. We don’t need to talk about that as a maybe, possibly, questionably, might be a side effect, right?
AL: Exactly. And I think you can even go a little bit further—we’ve been putting in our demands, and I would encourage your listeners to as well—you mentioned that the administration says that this would “save” billions of dollars.
Well, the way you calculate billions of dollars is you know how many people’s benefits are going to be ripped out of their pockets. And we’re demanding: “How many people are going to lose their benefits, according to your projections, that will ‘save’ X billions of dollars?” They’re giving it in dollar figures, but behind those dollar figures are people. And we’re saying we want this administration to knowingly say that they are taking benefits away from hundreds of thousands of people.
JJ: It seems relevant to note, as I learned from Talk Poverty, that thanks to a 2017 rule change, it’s already easier for Social Security to say that a person is medically improving and therefore no longer needs benefits, because now the agency can disregard evidence from the beneficiaries’ own doctors. They’ve been working on this for a while.
But I did want to say, there are plenty of problems with Social Security coverage in general, which I know you understand: It’s presented as pitting old people against young people; we’re told it’s about to go bankrupt…. But for those who aren’t living it themselves, or their family or their friends, there’s an additional fog around Social Security Disability.
And in that fog, I think, two big presumptions thrive: that somehow those benefits cost a lot to the country, or to “taxpayers.” And then also that it’s easy to qualify for those benefits, and therefore there’s a lot of fraud. I don’t want you to waste a lot of time on it, but can we put paid to those myths?
AL: Definitely. The first one is really important, because what they generally—“they” being the corporate media and the greedy liars on Wall Street, who are the ones who are always after our Social Security—they just can’t stand that they can’t get their greedy little hands on our Social Security. There is only one Social Security. It’s a suite of insurance products that we pay for during our working lives. We pay for it; no one gives us anything when it comes to Social Security. We pay for it, we see it coming out of our paycheck. It protects us against the loss of wages, a lot of people fully understand, when we retire; most people sort of visualize that portion when they think Social Security.
But the truth is, about a third of the benefits are actually, we are also insured—workers are insured, and their families—against the loss of wages due to a life-altering event, if a person becomes disabled and can no longer work, or, in the case of the death of a breadwinner of a family, for the surviving minor children. And those two portions of Social Security Insurance are just part of the whole thing. So you can’t say, “Oh, we’re just going after the disability portion”; that’s Social Security. They see it as the weakest part, they see it as the part that people don’t understand well enough to know that if we let Washington, DC, take our benefits away at all, it means they can take all our benefits away in the future. And let me be clear: That’s exactly what they want to do.
This is part of a decades-long campaign to either steal, in so-called privatization, or to destroy the Social Security system, so that there’s no other alternative besides Wall Street. And that’s what it all comes down to: greedy liars on Wall Street can’t stand how well Social Security works.
Less than one penny of every dollar that goes into the system pays for administering the entire thing. So 99 cents of every dollar paid in comes back in the form of benefits. A Wall Street hedge funder, private equity guy, looks at that and says, “I would tack on another 25–30% as my fee, so that I could buy a golden yacht,” or another golden yacht, or whatever they do with their money. They see the efficiency of Social Security, and they want to destroy it.
JJ: When you say “steal,” that’s not hyperbole, because, again, this is what we pay into. If you just read it as ideology—and sometimes media present it as though it’s just about your worldview—it makes it sound like, “Oh, people are saying, folks who have a lot should give to folks who don’t have.” That’s not what’s happening. This is, in fact, our money.
AL: This is our money. We earned it. And if we let our benefits be taken away, if we let them cut our benefits, if we let them alter the COLA, the Cost Of Living Adjustment, down, all of that is literally reaching into our pockets and stealing our money. Nobody is giving us anything when it comes to Social Security.
JJ: I’ve seen some good reporting on it. The Nashville Tennessean did their own investigation of some of the doctors that are hired to review these disability claims, and they found them racing through the paperwork at what is called an “implausible” pace. In other words, they were reviewing them so fast that they couldn’t help but be wrongfully rejecting claims.
But continuing on media, and finally, I just saw a Philadelphia Inquirer story that talked about what we’re talking about, and then said, “Social Security officials declined to comment.” And, you know, they don’t have to comment. If no one pays attention, it’s going to go through without their comment. But doctors are commenting, recipients are commenting, advocates are commenting, and the public comment period has been extended from January 17 to January 31.
You’re talking about, in the Reagan Era, when pushback worked—public pushback is what’s going to work. So what do we need to know about that?
AL: That’s exactly right. We know exactly what happened in the Reagan Era is that it was because of people raising their voices that this was rejected. It was overruled unanimously by the Congress.
So what we want to do is stop it before it’s even implemented. And to do that, we want people to write in their comments in the public comment period on the rule, you can just go to SocialSecurityWorks.org, and there’s a link right there to take you directly to where you should go to put in your comment.
We also want everyone to contact their members of Congress. Also, we think the comment period should be extended, because something you said is absolutely true: They’re trying to do this in the dead of night, behind closed doors, so that no one knows what’s going on.
And the more we can drag it into the sunlight, the more we can force them to defend the fact that they’re proposing stealing our benefits, the less they’re going to want to do it. And we think that we can defeat them if we can extend the comment period, if we can flood the comments with real people’s voices saying “No,” and if we can get our members of Congress—and, again, this is both parties. Social Security is not a partisan issue.
AL: So whoever your members of Congress are, contact them, and tell them, “Say no to stealing our Social Security benefits.”
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Alex Lawson of Social Security Works. You can find their work on this latest attack, as well as a link for you to publicly comment on it, at SocialSecurityWorks.org. Alex Lawson, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
AL: Thanks for having me.Print