Michael Hiltzik

Rand Paul steps up the GOP attack on Social Security

How Rand Paul's swipe at disability slanders 10 million Americans

Travel obligations kept me from addressing until now the attack on Social Security disability recipients made last week by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), but it was too outstandingly ignorant and cynical to go unanswered.

Long story short: If Paul's words truly represent the Republican Party's approach to Social Security, then not just the disabled but everyone else with an interest in the program -- taxpayers, retirees and their survivors and dependents -- should start panicking now. We reported on the first shot fired at Social Security by the new GOP Congress here. Paul has now raised the stakes.

Here are his words, delivered to an appreciative audience on Wednesday in the key presidential primary state of New Hampshire:

"The thing is that all of these programs, there’s always somebody who’s deserving, everybody in this room knows somebody who’s gaming the system. I tell people that if you look like me and you hop out of your truck, you shouldn’t be getting a disability check. Over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts. Join the club. Who doesn’t get up a little anxious for work every day and their back hurts? Everyone over 40 has a back pain."

Paul thus associates himself with a slander of disability recipients favored by Republican conservatives abetted by ill-informed journalists, who include the staffs of NPR and "60 Minutes." (We reported earlier on the latter's abandonment of journalistic standards in its disability coverage. 

Leaving aside Paul's contempt for people suffering from these conditions ("Join the club"), his numbers are flagrantly wrong. The actual figures can be found in this table from the Social Security Administration. Start with "anxiety": The Social Security Administration classifies anxiety as a subset of mental disorders and places it in the catch-all category of "other," which constitute a total of 3.9% of all disability claims -- and that's all otherwise unclassified mental disorders, not just anxiety. 

Social Security doesn't regard anxiety as lightly as Paul. According to its definitions, which can be found here, the category includes post-traumatic stress syndrome and phobias or compulsions that result in "marked difficulties" with working or living in society, or "complete inability to function independently outside the area of one's home." Paul wants his audience to think of "anxiety" as the mild sense of dread you might experience when contemplating a bad day at work, or perhaps an unpleasant visit with your family. He's lying about it. 

As for back pain, no one gets disability for the kind of mild stiffness that Bayer aspirin claims to relieve in its TV ads. That's the condition Paul tries to evoke by saying "everyone over 40 has a back pain." But he shows no empathy whatsoever for the real sufferers of this condition -- those who get it not from laboring in a physician's office or in Congress, as Paul has, but from years of hard physical toil or workplace injury.

Social Security classifies back pain as a "disease of the musculoskeletal system." Some 30.5% of disabled workers fell into this category in 2013, according to the latest available figures. But that category covers a lot more than "back pain." It also comprises amputations, joint failures, leg and arm fractures, spine disorders and burns. 

These are the official figures; no one has documented any others. Paul didn't cite a single source for his assertion that "over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts," so it's reasonable to conclude that he has no sources. But that's all right, because his goal isn't to offer a considered analysis of the pressures facing Social Security in general or its disability component in particular, but to rationalize an attack on the whole program by ridiculing disability recipients as a step toward legislating their benefits out of the system. Fabricated statistics are more than useful for that purpose.

The disability program is facing a fiscal crisis that could force a cutback in disability payments of about 20% starting next year; Paul and other Republicans have signaled that they won't accept the customary remedy for similar situations, which involves reallocating some payroll tax revenue from the old-age fund to cover disability's near-term shortfall. Instead, they're demanding a full-scale fiscal rebalancing of Social Security, which in practice means benefit cuts for everyone -- disabled, retirees and their families.

A large proportion of Paul's own constituents would be harmed by his approach. In 2013, his home state of Kentucky had the fourth-highest disability rate in the country -- more than 225,000 residents, or 8.2% of the population -- fostered in part by low educational attainment and lack of gainful employment opportunities. (What has Paul done to alleviate those conditions?)

The most cynical aspect of this attack is that it comes from some lawmakers who were helped by Social Security in their own lives. The roster includes Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who received Social Security benefits during his college years, after his father's untimely death, and now thinks that the nation can't afford to keep paying them as currently scheduled.

Another is Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), the sponsor of the House rules change, whose father died when he was 2 and then was raised by a single mother on Social Security and veterans benefits. Now he talks about Social Security going "bankrupt," which is flatly incorrect, and promotes a measure aimed at cutting benefits for all. This is known as climbing the ladder and pulling it up behind you. If Reed, Ryan and Paul get their way, the only option left to the rest of us will be to hold tight. 

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