Sen. Rand Paul drew fire from Democrats on Wednesday after he claimed widespread fraud and abuse of the Social Security disability insurance program while speaking in the early presidential primary state of New Hampshire.
“Over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts,” said Paul, who is an ophthalmologist. “Everybody in this room knows somebody who’s gaming the system.”
Those are some pretty hefty accusations that feed into the standard conservative line that social security is another mismanaged, abused and bloated government program. And of course, Democrats didn’t skip a beat in going after him for the comments.
But let’s dig into Paul’s claims.
Are more than half the people receiving disability checks from the government cashing in on back pain and anxiety?
Paul may have gotten a little bit carried away with all this talk of government waste and abuse when he got into the disability figures.
The share of back pain and anxiety sufferers doesn’t crack 50%, not even when you lump in the broader categories of “mood disorders” –14% of disability beneficiaries – and “musculoskeletal system and connective tissue” diseases, which account for 29% of total beneficiaries.
You can even add in the 4.9% of people receiving disability checks for “injuries” and you still don’t reach Paul’s 50% threshold.
How common are back pain and anxiety anyway?
Back pain is a pretty pervasive issue in the U.S. In fact, it’s the leading cause of disability in Americans under 45 years old according to the National Center for Health Statistics. And 26 million Americans aged 20 to 64 experience frequent back pain – that’s just more than 8% of the U.S. population.
So, no, Paul isn’t quite right in saying “everybody over 40 has back pain.” But we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on that one that he was talking about your once-in-a-while, pop a couple pain killers and you’re fine kind of pain.
But those people obviously aren’t getting disability from the Social Security Administration. The agency has established criteria that needs to be met in order to qualify for disability payments, all of which involve specific conditions or evidence of serious symptoms as determined by a doctor that “prevent an individual from doing any gainful activity.”
Yeah, but what about all that fraud?
Well, it’s less common than some would lead you to believe – though it’s not clear exactly how much fraud occurs.
The Social Security Administration has often cited a figure that disability fraud amounts to less than 1% of cases. Conservatives have disputed that figure, but what’s clear is that the number of applications referred to investigators and then the number of cases actually determined to be fraudulent are in the thousands – not the tens or hundreds of thousands, which would indicate a significant percentage.
A Social Security administrator told a congressional committee in 2012 that of the 19,000 cases referred for suspected fraud, only about 4,600 were opened for fuller investigation. And fewer were determined to be fraudulent.
And Paul’s arguing that the states should run the program to bring those numbers even lower?
That’s what it sounds like. But he also appears to be suggesting that the bar to receive Social Security disability insurance should be raised.
“What I tell people is, if you look like me and you hop out of your truck, you shouldn’t be getting a disability check,” Paul said.
And while he likened clinical anxiety to everyone who gets “a little anxious for work every day,” Paul suggested that only people who are “legitimately disabled” like those who are “paraplegic, quadriplegic” should be eligible for disability entitlements.
Could this be damaging for Paul if he decides to run in 2016?
Anything a potential candidate says in the run up to 2016 – in fact, anything they’ve ever said – can come back to bite them in a campaign ad or stump speech attack.
This is unlikely to be something that would hurt Paul in the primary since Republicans are largely in agreement when it comes to the need to reform government programs like Social Security, but it could be used against Paul in the general.
Romney knocked 47% of the American population who, according to him, “are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims” and who feel “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, you name it.”
That was a hugely damaging comment in 2012, but Paul’s comment about the half of Americans on disability likely won’t have the same effect.
About 8.8 million Americans receive disability checks. Lump in their roughly 2 million dependents and you’ve still got less than 4% of the population. But the real reason Romney’s remark hurt him was because it reinforced a narrative voters already had about Romney – that he was a rich guy out of touch with the struggle of middle Americans. Paul doesn’t have a heartless reputation with voters and his comments fit with his reputation as a small government conservative.
Updated Friday: Brian Darling, senior communications director, for Paul provided the following response after the story was published:
“Citizens with chronic illness and disabilities in need of help should never be turned away from government programs set up for the purposes of aiding those in need. If you study government data from the Social Security Administration, you find that the numbers come very close to Senator Paul’s off-the-cuff ballpark estimate. Senator Paul’s point was simple; those who are not in need, and consuming government resources dedicated to those who need help, are hurting the people these programs are intended to aid.”