The Washington Post’s Reporting on Disability Is Giving Trump Cover for Disability Cuts

The Washington Post is out with the second in a series of articles pushing the nastiest of myths about Social Security disability benefits and the people who rely on them.

Their latest article, titled “Generations, disabled,” doubles down on seriously flawed reporting that The Post began in March. This time the author, Terrence McCoy, profiles a family in Missouri struggling with poverty and health-related challenges. McCoy takes aim at many aspects of their lives, but the one he reserves the most scorn for—the fact that more than one person in the family receives disability benefits—mirrors the same disability cuts Trump called for in last week’s budget proposal.

The piece immediately drew deserved criticism on social media from a range of respected journalists and experts including The Atlantic’s Annie Lowry, Vox’s Matt Yglesias and Dylan Matthews, and former National Economic Council Chairman Gene Sperling.


Like the first article in The Post’s series, the latest story willfully ignores the reality of Social Security disability benefits, instead relying on flawed data and flowery writing and anecdotes to paint a cartoonish picture of rural America overtaken by a “culture of disability.” As my colleague Kate Gallagher Robbins pointed out on Twitter, the piece reads like a work of fiction. It even opens with a stage-setting mini-story practically ripped from Of Mice and Men, in which a child accidentally drops and nearly kills his new puppy.

Notably, where the piece does introduce evidence beyond richly woven anecdote, what evidence it includes contradicts The Post’s narrative.

Case in point: The article makes much of the fact that multiple family members, such as a parent and a child, might receive disability benefits. Yet the article’s text makes no mention of the data featured in a sidebar, which tell the real story here: that disability often runs in families. But The Post would rather blame the lifeboat for the flood.

This kind of reporting isn’t just stigmatizing and misleading—it’s dangerous.

You wouldn’t know it from The Post’s reporting, but as my colleagues and I have pointed out time and again—including in our multiple responses to The Post’s previous go-round on disability—Social Security disability benefits are incredibly hard to get. The vast majority of applicants are denied, and fewer than 4 in 10 Social Security Disability Insurance applicants are approved, even after all stages of appeal. For those who do receive benefits, they are modest—barely enough to bring many disability beneficiaries far above the federal poverty line.

A set of personal testimonials tacked on as an addendum to the article tells the real story of disability benefits. These reader stories offer a more accurate description of what these benefits mean to people who rely on them to make ends meet—and the immense challenges that living with a disability or chronic illness can bring. Kudos to The Post for including them—but disappointingly, they appear to be an afterthought that failed to penetrate the paper’s reporting on these programs.

This kind of reporting isn’t just stigmatizing and misleading—it’s dangerous. A flurry of anecdote-based media accounts in the late 1980s and early 1990s—which created the original “welfare queen” myth—paved the way for politicians to dismantle cash assistance for poor families with children in the name of “welfare reform.” In the 25 years since, the share of poor families with kids helped by the shell of a program that remains—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—has dropped from 8 in 10 to fewer than 1 in 4.

The current political climate, paired with The Washington Post’s reporting, is setting disability benefits to meet the same fate as cash assistance. Just last week, President Trump proposed a whopping $72 billion in cuts to these disability programs in his budget. Before this series, I would have expected better from The Post than to give cover to such cruel and heartless cuts.


First Person

My Health Care Race with Congressional Republicans

Since the new administration took office, I have been living in a constant state of stress.  My family and I get our health insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, also known as Health First in Colorado, and President Trump and Congressional Republicans campaigned on repealing the law. Nearly every day, there is a new update on health care legislation.  And every day, my concern remains unchanged: Will my children and I be covered?

The possibility that I could lose my insurance looms over me like a death sentence.  My son was born with a very rare genetic diagnosis, which comes with a half dozen specialists. He’ll need those doctors until he is at least 18 years old, and there is no way that I can pay for all of them myself (I’d have to earn over $100,000 a year).  Then, last December, my daughter got sick, and I was diagnosed with an injury that required possible surgery—plus specialists, appointments and medication.

Now I am racing to schedule as many appointments as I can, while I still have that option.

In January and February, my kids and I had 20 appointments between the three of us. That takes time, energy, and money. It impacts my children’s education—it decides when they attend school, and when they miss it. It also impacts when and how much I work, since I’m spending hours driving to appointments, talking with providers on the phone, and communicating with Medicaid about what is covered and what is not. At any given time, I may need to take my son to an appointment. And to deal with my injury, I have had to spend a lot of time resting.  This translates to an odd work schedule that touches 6-7 days per week, somewhere between the hours of 6:30 AM – 11:00 PM.

My family isn’t the only one like this.

My family isn’t the only one like this.  At least 23 million people would lose their health care if the House health care bill becomes law. I know those people. I have close friends with children on the autism spectrum.  I have a sibling with Down syndrome who nearly died last year.  I have two parents whose health care needs increase every year—including a father who has battled cancer four times in the past four years.  We are not just a number that can be reviewed or dismissed.

And then there’s the issue of pre-existing condition exclusions that will drive up the prices for the care we do have. If my son is no longer able to see his specialists, it will severely impact his life. If he doesn’t receive the surgery he needs in a few years, it will affect his entire body.

As legislators debate the fate of healthcare for Americans, there are millions of families like mine—with mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters who deserve basic, daily, necessary care—from vitamins and supplements to cancer treatments.  No child deserves to live while another dies, just because their family has more money to afford treatment.

I beseech the legislators to consider what they would do for their families if they were suddenly faced to choose healthcare for their loved ones, or none at all.  May wisdom—not profit—prevail.



Why It Matters That Poor Kids Don’t Have Time to Play

Last year, Allyn taught a second grade class in a high-poverty school in Saint Petersburg, Florida. The school had been in the papers for poor test results, and it was pushing to change by adding extra time for reading instruction.

“We were very strictly monitored how each minute of our day was spent,” said Allyn, who asked me to use only her middle name. “I think we were in the spotlight so much from all the media that they were just super strict about how our day was supposed to go.”

The school gave kids three days of physical education a week, and built five minutes into Allyn’s schedule to do “indoor recess.” But the schedule didn’t include a real recess.

Allyn said many of the kids had a lot of stress in their lives. Being stuck indoors doing school work with no time for free play was rough.

“I think there was a lot of acting out due to it,” she said. “Kids just shut down.”

Kids just shut down.

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, recess has been a tricky subject at many schools. In 2008, the Center for Public Education (CPE), an initiative of the National School Boards Association, reported that 20 percent of school districts had reduced the time spent at recess over the previous six years, dropping kids’ time outside by 50 minutes per week on average. Comparable figures aren’t available for 2016, but the trend still shows total recess time ticking down: from 30.2 minutes a day in 2006 to 27 minutes in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The damage was particularly serious at schools serving poor kids. The CPE found that only 3 percent of U.S. elementary schools with moderate poverty rates offered no recess at all, but, at schools where more than three quarters of the kids receive free and reduced lunch, the figure was 18 percent.

For parents and child development experts alike, the value of recess is a no-brainer. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that free play is crucial for children’s physical and social development, and also for their ability to do well in class. A slew of studies going back decades have found that students learn best if they get regular, unstructured breaks.

Dr. Jayme Mathias, a trustee of the Austin, Texas school district, explains that pressure to raise test scores can overrule the research.  “We have a culture of high-stakes testing, which, especially for struggling students, means there’s a lot of pressure on students and teachers and administrators to pass high-stakes tests,” she says. “A lot of students, particularly minority and disadvantaged students, were missing out on recess time.”

Eighty percent of students in more affluent areas had recess every day

Up until this year, most elementary schools in the city’s low-income neighborhoods offered little or no recess time, while 80 percent of those in more affluent areas had recess every day, the Austin American Statesman reported.

Ken Zarifis, president of the local teachers’ union, Education Austin, said it’s clear that giving kids a break helps them learn—as well as simply being the decent thing to do. But he said teachers and administrators have been under intense pressure to improve test scores, under threat of having schools closed, and it has warped school cultures.

“We have about 20 years of standardized testing and ‘accountability’ that has made it hard to move away from anything but ‘keep kids in their seat, make them do another worksheet, and that’s going to get your numbers up,’” he said.

Since schools serving lower-income students face many complicated barriers to raising test scores, they tend to be under the most pressure. Some years, Zarifis said, he’s seen high-need Austin schools spending semesters focusing almost exclusively on “high dosage tutoring”—intensive academic help in small-group settings—to pump up their scores.

“It was just appalling,” he said. “It’s unconscionable that we would put seven, eight, nine, and 10-year-olds and stick them in a seat for eight hours.”

But recess advocates in the city have successfully pushed back against those kinds of practices. A new district policy that went into effect in January guarantees students through grade 5 at least 20 minutes of free play each day.

High-stakes testing isn’t the only reason lower-income schools are less likely to have recess. In some cases, schools don’t have appropriate playgrounds or equipment.

“I was always in schools that had no finances for physical education,” said Francesca Zavacky, a former public school teacher who’s now a project director with the physical educators’ group SHAPE America. “I would walk out at recess, and kids would just be milling around, or chasing each other and fighting.”

At that school, Zavacky said, the PTA ended up winning a grant to buy recess equipment.

Many schools could use better funding so they wouldn’t have to depend on parental expertise or internal resources to raise funds—especially since wealthy students are much more likely to have access to both revenue sources. But they also need new policies to make sure kids can get out and use the equipment if they have it. Zavacky said states should require schools to offer daily time for free play, a policy that exists in only 8 of the 50 states now, according to a SHAPE America report. She said it’s also important to stop schools from keeping kids in from recess for academic reasons, or as a punishment, which one study found nearly three-quarters of elementary schools do.

Some states have already made progress. Rhode Island passed a law last summer requiring schools to give kids 20 minutes of recess a day, and Virginia now mandates 100 minutes of physical activity a week, which can include recess.

Other states have been slower to catch up. Advocates in Florida, where Allyn’s school is located, have been pushing for a state recess mandate in that state. The state legislature is now considering the idea.

Allyn left the school this year. She knows it’s supposedly added recess to its schedule, but, at the same time, it’s extended the school day by another hour. That means kids are at school for eight hours with, at best, 20 minutes or so outdoors.

Still, these kinds of school-by-school policy changes are a start. And, regardless of the outcome at the legislative level, Florida’s recess advocates scored a victory in late May, when Marion County’s superintendent decided that the county’s 31 elementary schools will all have daily recess next year.



Trump’s Budget Is What Class Warfare Looks Like

Earlier this week, the Trump administration launched a massive salvo against the working and middle class with a budget that was every bit as absurd as its title: “A New Foundation for American Greatness.”

Trump’s spin was characteristically grandiose and empty of truth.  In a message to Congress he wrote that the budget’s “defining ambition is to unleash the dreams of the American people.”  He’s going to do that by “laying a new foundation for American Greatness,” with a “streamlined Government” that will “drive an economic boom that raises incomes and expands job opportunities” for everyone.

Let’s be clear: the only thing new about this proposal is the scale of bad conservative ideas it features. Otherwise, it’s in line with a decades-old pursuit to cut Social Security, Medicaid, and other vital protections to bankroll handouts to their wealthy patrons. Trump does this to the tune of $5.5 trillion in tax cuts—as in, more than the GDP of Japan. He promises that this windfall for the rich will lead to massive economic growth, job creation, and new revenues—so much so that the $5.5 trillion will pay for itself.

The fact is that we have decades of data showing that when it comes to tax cuts for the wealthy the only thing you can count on is that the wealthy get tax cuts.  No job creation, no economic boom—just some major shortfalls in revenue when it comes to things like paying for schools, libraries, roads, and other vital services.

Boiled down, this proposal is simply an unprecedented transfer of wealth to the very top that comes at the expense of the rest of us.  It shows a callousness towards Trump’s own voters and takes a wrecking ball to our shared basic living standards.

This proposal is simply an unprecedented transfer of wealth to the very top.

A $64 billion cut to Social Security Disability Insurance—a basic support workers pay into in case they are someday unable to participate in the workforce—would hit older workers and blue collar workers the hardest.

Another $800 billion$1.4 trillion if you include the Republican health care plan—is slashed from Medicaid. This will impact not only people with low-incomes but also those of us who rely on Medicaid for care in nursing homes.  Literally tens of millions of people would lose coverage.

Trump also takes a torch to the SNAP (food stamp) program with a 29 percent cut—this for assistance that currently averages about $1.40 a meal and still manages to produce excellent long-term educational and economic outcomes for recipients.  (If instead he focused on raising the minimum wage to just $12 an hour, it would save $5.3 billion annually in SNAP support. It’s not that people aren’t working, it’s that the damn wages are too low to pay for the basics.)

At a time when people are being priced out of college or carrying an overwhelming debt burden, Trump would reduce support for loans and grants that help make college more affordable.

Trump continues to wage his war on science and the general health and well-being of the public, with nearly $6 billion in cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), $1 billion in cuts to the National Cancer Institute, and billions more from basic scientific and medical research.  For good measure, there is a $35 million cut to the Center for Disease Control’s Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, and the elimination of federal grants for Special Olympics.  And we know global warming and environmental hazards are of no concern to Trump—he cuts Environmental Protection Agency funding by 31 percent, including one-third of the budget for climate and clean air work.

All told, Trump takes an axe to a dizzying $1.7 trillion worth of support for our basic living standards, in order to giveaway trillions more to the wealthiest among us.  He rode a wave of populism to the White House, and then spit in our faces by doubling down on historic levels of inequality.

There is only one rational response to this man and his cronies of wealthy elites and conservative ideologues: Fight harder than we’ve ever fought before.

Author’s note: One way to fight back with TalkPoverty and allies is by sharing your story about how government assistance has been there for you—or people you know—when you need it. Together, we can make sure the budget debate is about our lives, not about lies and numbers. Join the #Handsoff Campaign at today.

Correction: This article originally stated that the Trump Administration proposes a 28 percent cut to SNAP, instead of a 29 percent cut.



‘Against All Odds’ Is Required Viewing for White Progressives

“Structural racism” has become a buzzword in white progressive circles.  But every time I push a white writer to break down the meaning behind the words without success, or I see a Black Lives Matter sign in an apartment window in a gentrified neighborhood where longtime residents of color are now priced out, I have to ask myself: How much we really know about the theoretically-woke words we’re throwing around?

We’re finally starting to call out racial disparities, but do we understand the history that creates them? We pledge our allegiance to inclusiveness and shared power, but do we examine the roles our own lives play in maintaining policies, practices, and cultures that continue to harm African-American friends and family, neighbors and coworkers?

It is for these reasons that I believe every white progressive (and, really, every white person) should see Bob Herbert’s new documentary, Against All Odds: The Fight for a Black Middle Class.

Herbert presents an airtight case of structural racism in America—and it’s a case I’m laying out at length here in case you don’t see the film. If we are going to throw these words around, we better understand their meaning and use that understanding to inform the work that we—white people—must do.

Lack of access to jobs, housing, and capital

When 6 million African Americans fled the horrors of the South during the Great Migration, they discovered new forms of discrimination and exclusion in the North. Some found work in factories, but most worked menial jobs—as servants, janitors, drivers, and cooks—while they were charged exorbitant rents for substandard housing in the worst neighborhoods.

One of the only pathways to the middle class that was available for black Americans was self-employment.  But without access to capital, it’s hard to grow a business. Herbert’s grandfather managed to open an upholstery business that staved off the worst of the Great Depression for his family. His father, too, opened two stores in the 1960s and ’70s.  But when his father was in a position to expand and compete with larger, white-owned businesses, he was locked out by the banks—and that was in New Jersey.

“They weren’t giving bank loans to guys who looked like my father,” Herbert says.

This lack of access to capital is a constant refrain throughout the black experience in America.  When black families could finally afford to move out of ghettos, banks wouldn’t give them mortgages.  Lenders took maps and drew red lines around neighborhoods where they wouldn’t loan to black families. (Hence the term “redlining.”)  Moreover, the federal government wouldn’t insure home loans for black people—it was literally written into the Federal Housing Administration handbook, according to former housing organizer Jack Macnamara.

As a result, black families often resorted to buying homes “on contract,” which meant purchasing them—at double or triple the value—from shady brokers on a monthly installment plan. There was no opportunity to build equity for black families—when they couldn’t make a payment they were simply tossed out and the seller would cut the same deal with another black family.  It is estimated that this legal practice drained at least $500 million from the black community in Chicago alone between 1940-1970 (and according to The Washington Post the practice is making a comeback).

Decades of wealth that black families had managed to build up vanished overnight.

Predatory schemes were still rampant in the lead up to the housing collapse in 2008.  Rather than having access to prime, fixed-rate home mortgages, black Americans earning annual salaries of $100,000 were more likely to receive toxic, subprime loans (think low teaser interest rates that later skyrocket) than white Americans with an income of just $30,000.  Major commercial banks actually incentivized these deals, paying mortgage brokers and loan officers more for the subprime loans and then selling them to eager investors who were promised higher returns.

“Businesses, banks, and brokers were deliberately wealth-stripping from communities of color,” says Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, president and CEO of the Center for Global Policy Solutions.

When the housing market crashed, decades of wealth that black families had managed to build up vanished overnight. Today white families average about $113,000 in financial assets, while African American families average just $5,700. Rockeymoore notes that about one-third of African Americans have no assets at all.

Keeping blacks “in their place”

Racism wasn’t all institutional. Many white citizens and politicians have conspired to limit the social and economic advances of African Americans any time they felt their own status was threatened.

For example, beginning in the mid-1940s, thousands of whites in Chicago participated in a series of riots to keep single black families out of their neighborhoods. In 1951, when an army veteran attempted to move into a rented apartment with his family of four, they were stopped by a mob of 4,000 people that ransacked their belongings and then burned the entire building down. Similarly, in 1959, when a black family moved into their newly-purchased home, a mob of 5,000 people stoned the house, threw lit torches, and chanted “we want blood.”

The history of white rioting has been buried.

Author Beryl Satter says that the riots were “common” and yet the history of white rioting has been “buried.”

“When people think of violence and riots in the street, they always think of the 1960s when black people rioted. But when white people rioted, it doesn’t even have a name,” Satter says.

Meanwhile, politicians stoke hostility towards blacks in more subtle ways. The film includes remarkable audio of Lee Atwater, advisor to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, discussing some of the tactics used to secure the votes of racist whites.

Atwater notes that politicians moved from saying “nigger, nigger, nigger” to more covert, racist talking points about “forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff.”  Atwater says elected officials have been forced to adopt “much more abstract” language—often called “dog-whistles”—to communicate that voting for them means “blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

Today’s more subtle forms of racism

Herbert’s interviews with black professionals render a vivid portrayal of what middle class African Americans continue to experience in their daily lives, even internally.

Karla Swinton, a marketing manager, talks about wearing “a mask” at work so that when she hears “racially offensive” things “you take it in stride, you take a breath, you keep moving.”

Z Scott, a partner at a major law firm and former federal prosecutor, talks about being asked to type for people, or being treated as incompetent and not deserving “the chair you are sitting in.”

“Black professionals, we’re all suppressing a certain amount of rage… and it’s something that you have to manage,” she says.

And then there is the inherent insecurity of trying to provide for one’s family, knowing that you haven’t benefitted from generations of government entitlements like tax deductions on mortgage interest, 401Ks, and health insurance—or even benefits under Social Security and the GI Bill—as white families have.

Swinton’s husband, Brent, a professional fundraiser, says, “Being black middle class means wherever you’ve arrived you’ve only been there just in the span of your life.” He describes driving through a nearby white suburb and reflecting, “There is something that takes place over more than one generation that allows them to pass along a much greater head start…. I want to do that for my kids.”

What to do in terms of action?

At a recent screening in the nation’s capital, Herbert spoke of his hopes for the film: “I want people to see things that they may not have been aware of. I want them to be appalled by it.  And I hope that people will take action and say ‘we are not going to tolerate this anymore.’”

Herbert was joined by Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD), who appears in the film and shares his own story of being the son and grandson of sharecroppers. Both men agreed that the easiest way to create change is simply to vote—including in off-year elections.

Progressives need to fight to make sure black Americans have someone and something to vote for.

But progressives need to also fight to make sure black Americans have someone and something to vote for.  We need to support candidates who will speak the truth about structural racism in our past and present, and fight for the new equitable policies that are needed if we are serious about equal opportunity—like targeted jobs programs, greater affordable housing, and increased public school funding in communities that have been historically and chronically disadvantaged by racist policies and actions.

Indeed, in the wake of the 2016 election, with so much focus on the white working class, we need to be more vigilant—and better students of history—if we are going to find real solutions.

Being a “white progressive” involves incessantly asking tough questions—of oneself, loved ones, and social circles—about the ways structural racism is threaded throughout our country, cultural norms, and day-to-day interactions. We are not entitled to comfort and confidence—those should be fleeting sensations.  There is much to learn and even more to do to truly combat and eradicate structural racism.

As Herbert says towards the end of the film: “I don’t even think the full story of overt racism in this country has been well told… The more subtle forms of discrimination are not addressed at all.  People pretend that those subtle forms—which are incredibly debilitating—don’t even exist.”

Author’s note: For screenings at your school, workplace, or other venue, contact: