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Disability Fraud: Why the Hysteria?

Last week I commented on an article in the New York Times that reported on the Trump administration’s proposal to monitor the social media accounts of people who collect Social Security Disability Income.

This week’s post is inspired by commenter Trap Rivers, whose eloquent comment to that post included the words, “we are the villains who are in the crosshairs of the angry mob.”  Trap’s comment got me thinking about the many ways society demonizes its most vulnerable people, from the urban-legendary “Welfare Queen” to people with disabilities—especially ones you can’t see.

We make rich people angry. We lay a legitimate claim to a pittance from the wealth they’re trying to hoard. Because they are dishonest themselves, they assume we are too, and that we’re “gaming the system.” The middle class doesn’t like us any better—we take their hard-earned money that they pay in taxes and they’re working to support us, dammit! Never mind that most of us already paid into the system far more than we’ll ever take out, before we needed the aid.

I decided to research how big a problem disability fraud really is. When I Googled “disability fraud,” I got several pages of hits on what to do if you suspect someone of committing fraud. Not a single article about a documented case of fraud.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget is a nonpartisan, non-profit organization committed to educating the public on issues with significant fiscal policy impact. On their fact sheet, which supposedly details how much abuse of Social Security actually exists, their bulleted list says nothing about actual abuse figures, except to say that claims based on the Social Security numbers of people known to be dead amount to about $15 million, or less than a hundredth of a percent of the amount paid out.

The Motley Fool, a financial advisory site, begins its article on abuse of the system with this paragraph:

“Just as tax fraud costs the IRS countless dollars each year, so, too, does Social Security fraud cause the program to lose billions. The problem is so bad, in fact, that the agency itself has no idea how much money it parts with needlessly.”

Now, if “the agency have no idea how much money it parts with needlessly,” how do they know it’s happening at all? It seems they are conflating the system going broke with the assumption of fraud. The system is going broke because the proportion of young people paying in is dropping in relation to the proportion of older people drawing benefits. You don’t need to understand economics at all to get that. The article fails to define how much of a problem fraud may be, proportionally to the other issues that are causing the shortfall in Social Security.

In an article from Forbes,, the author, Richard Finger, expresses dismay over the number of conditions that can be used as a basis for a disability claim.  “There is a kaleidoscope of ailments from which to choose.”  He says there has been a shift toward claims of conditions that are hard to disprove, especially mental illness and “back pain.” (The quotes are his, not mine.) He rips on fibromyalgia as a catch-all for unexplained pain, which he seems to dismiss as hypochondria. The system is, apparently, “begging for abuse.”

I’m not saying that abuse of the system doesn’t happen. I’m saying that these articles use speculation that is unsupported by data, to fan the flames of fear and hate, like much of this era’s political rhetoric.

Just because back pain claims are on the rise doesn’t necessarily mean fraud is on the rise. Just because a condition is “hard to disprove” doesn’t mean a large number of people can’t be genuinely afflicted with it. I resent the presumption of criminality that I have to deal with when I apply (unsuccessfully) for benefits.

I’m going to a potluck dinner tonight. I have a lot of pain today and will take extra meds before I go. I’ll be in pain every second of the dinner, but that won’t be in the front of my mind most of the time. Tomorrow I’ll need extra meds and rest breaks to recover. I’ll post photos on Facebook of me enjoying the company of my new friends, maybe even playing some lawn games and silly dancing. And possibly, some desk wonk in a beige-furnished building will nab those photos and use them as an excuse to put my back pain in quotes. I think you can imagine where I want that desk wonk to cram it.

Disability Fraud: Why the Hysteria?

Kristin Noreen

Kristin Noreen lives in Bellingham, Washington with two cats and her vintage touring bicycle, Silver. Her triple passions are animal rescue, long-distance bike touring, and writing. Her book, On Silver Wings: A Life Reconstructed, is about reinventing her life following a catastrophic injury.

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APA Reference
, . (2019). Disability Fraud: Why the Hysteria?. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 Apr 2019
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