Column: Trump’s budget director revives a fact-free conservative attack on disability recipients

Share via

Appearing Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation,” President Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, engaged in a drive-by shooting of some the nation’s neediest and most defenseless people: the disabled.

Mulvaney’s attack shared its essential qualities with most previous Republican attacks on disabled Americans, in that it was arrogant, ignorant and abetted by the news media — in this case, moderator John Dickerson, who let Mulvaney’s words pass without comment. Both should be ashamed of themselves.

Do you really think that Social Security disability insurance is part of what people think of when they think of Social Security? I don’t think so.

— Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, showing he knows nothing about Social Security disability


Here are Mulvaney’s words, in their entirety. They came in the very last 20 seconds of a seven-minute interview, delivered with a condescending simper:

“Let me ask you a question,” Mulvaney said. “Do you really think that Social Security disability insurance is part of what people think of when they think of Social Security? I don’t think so. It’s the fastest-growing program. It grew tremendously under President Obama. It’s a very wasteful program, and we want to try and fix that.”

Dickerson’s response to this stream of mendacity was this, in its entirety:

“OK, we’re going to have to end it there.”

Mulvaney’s comments came out of left field, as an answer of sorts to a question about future Medicare and retirement spending, to which the disability program is largely irrelevant. Let’s try to unpack his comments, since Dickerson didn’t do so.

First of all, if Mulvaney has a problem with disability insurance being part of Social Security, he needs to take it up with the shade of President Dwight Eisenhower (a Republican), who signed the program into law in 1956. He might also familiarize himself with the history of efforts to provide rehabilitation services and cash benefits to the disabled, which date back to 1936. He should also know that the basic fiscal and benefit structure of Social Security is based on its role as both a retirement and an insurance program; if he wishes to unwind that, he’s got a lot of work ahead of him.

Is disability the “fastest-growing program,” as Mulvaney asserted? He didn’t specify whether he meant the fastest-growing program inside Social Security or out, but either way he’s dead wrong. Currently, the disability rolls are not only not growing, but shrinking. In 2014, disability enrollment peaked at 8.95 million disabled workers (plus another 1.98 million of their spouses and children). By last December, they had fallen to 8.81 million disabled workers, plus another 1.8 million family members.


That’s a reduction of almost 3% in total enrollment in two year, largely because the various factors contributing to the previous increase in disability claims have topped out. Disabled workers, by the way, received an average $1,165.39 per month last year, for an annual income of $13,984.68. That’s a hair over the poverty line — a very thin hair.

By contrast, Social Security’s largest program, retirement, continues to grow steadily. It rose from 39 million retirees to 41.2 million from 2014 through 2016, an increase of more than 5.6%; as baby boomers continue to move into retirement, that figure is certain to grow. As director of the Office of Management and Budget, surely Mulvaney should know that a program that’s shrinking can’t be growing faster than one that’s expanding. What’s his excuse for not knowing, and what does that say about his ability to manage the federal budget?

The Social Security trustees forecast that disability rolls will resume rising in coming years, but at the very low average pace of a little over a half-percent a year, rising by a total of 11.7% from 2016 through 2036. The retirement rolls, however, are expected to grow much faster, rising from 41.5 million in 2016 to about 69 million in 2036, a increase of about 66%.

Is the disability program “very wasteful”? This is a common right-wing talking point against the program, but it’s not supported by evidence. Its basis, actually, is a series of anecdotes that periodically make their way into the news, recounting how some group of claimants at one job site or another managed to game the system.

These are never placed in context, because the context doesn’t serve the purposes of the panderers. The truth is that the disability error rate, which counts both overpayments and underpayments to beneficiaries, is well below 1% of all benefits, as then-Acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin testified to Congress in 2012. Colvin observed then that if Congress wished to reduce the error rate further, it needed to stop squeezing the budget of the Social Security Administration, which pays for the continuing disability reviews that keep an eye on recipients to track whether they’ve recovered or have found gainful employment. The record shows, however, that in the vast majority of cases disabilities last a lifetime.


It’s true that disability enrollments soared during the early years of the Obama administration. But the reasons had nothing to do with Obama White House policies, as Mulvaney implied. Contrary to a surge of inept, uninformed and inaccurate reporting by news outlets including NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and “Face the Nation’s” sister CBS program, “60 Minutes,” the drivers of the increase weren’t mysterious or dishonest.

The factors included overall population growth; the entry of more women into the workforce, which made them eligible for disability coverage for the first time; and the aging of the workforce, which brought more workers into the age range of 50 to 64, when disability claims peak, before those workers age further into Social Security retirement. All those factors have plateaued in recent years.

Another major factor was the economy. Disability claims tend to rise along with the unemployment rate. But that’s not a sign that workers are turning to the disability program as an alternative welfare program, as disability critics in Congress and some of the most ill-informed news reporting had it. The reason is that as job opportunities decline in general, those available to the disabled become especially scarce. As we observed in 2013, disabled people always have more difficulty finding employment than others; when desk jobs disappear and all that’s left are laborers’ positions, the opportunities for the physically and mentally challenged only become more dire. By the same token, once the employment picture improves, more disabled persons get absorbed back into the workforce.

Mulvaney’s comments played into the popular perception, promoted by conservative Republicans and lazy reporting, that disability benefits are easy to obtain. The truth is exactly the opposite. The disability certification process is long and difficult. Applicants must show that they have a physical or mental condition that prevents them from earning even $14,000 a year on their own. The approval process can take months, and even after appeals, only about 40% of applicants end up with benefits.

What was most obnoxious about Mulvaney’s casual swipe at the disability program is that he offered no ideas for improving it or even changing it. Does he advocate taking it out of Social Security? If so, where should it go? Does he advocate eliminating it? If so, how will the disabled survive? Does he think they’re all layabouts and malingerers? If so, where’s his evidence? If his intention is to “fix” it so it’s not “wasteful,” how does he propose to do so?

Dickerson’s willingness to let Mulvaney get away with such a performance underscores the continuing inability of Washington’s TV news interlocutors to keep up with the Trump administration’s torrent of untruths. But that’s their job, and they better get their arms around it, and quick. We can understand Dickerson’s haste to get Mulvaney offstage — he had a commercial to get to. But in doing so, he allowed Mulvaney to make life seem immeasurably more uncertain for nearly 11 million American workers and their dependents. Is that really what “Face the Nation” is here for?


Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email

Return to Michael Hiltzik’s blog.


1:44 p.m.: This post has been updated with figures for projected future increases in disability and retirement rolls.