Social Security Disability beneficiaries reportedly received an estimated $1.3 billion in “potentially improper payments.” You may have seen this news coverage of a recently released Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. The limited methodology used to generate GAO’s estimates only compared Social Security Administration (SSA) data with earnings data from the National Database of New Hires (NDNH) and did not take into account Social Security’s work rules, making GAO’s estimates incomplete at best. An accurate figure cannot be produced without a more in-depth, case-by-case investigation by SSA.
Notably, the overwhelming majority of media coverage on the report, by the Associated Press (AP) and others , failed to provide vital context. Most headlines focused on the $1.3 billion figure, even though the GAO report makes clear that the scale of any potential improper payments was very low-about 0.5 percent of Disability Insurance payments. Similarly, the share of beneficiaries that GAO estimated may have received improper payments was also very small (0.4 percent of Disability beneficiaries). Many news reports inaccurately characterized the report as evidence of beneficiaries “gaming the system,” despite the fact that GAO’s report makes no allegations or findings regarding fraud.
The misleading news on this subject is obviously unfortunate and serves to perpetuate damaging myths about the Social Security Disability programs. Social Security Disability Insurance provides vital assistance to more than 8 million disabled workers and their families. The GAO’s estimates of potentially improper payments represent less than half of one percent of Disability Insurance payments overall and just 0.4 percent of beneficiaries. An incredibly modes error rate by any measure. The GAO itself makes clear in its report the methodology was highly limited. The GAO’s findings are mere estimates of “potentially” improper payments-not findings of actual error, let alone alleged fraud or abuse as the media has implied.