On “pulling a check” in disability


NPR’s “Planet Money” headline this weekend.

Over the weekend NPR’s “Planet Money” released a story on the rise of Americans on disability. I thought it decent overall, but I see some others had issues with the “This American Life” complimentary piece (which I haven’t listen to) on disability and children. In the past I’ve enjoyed both program’s work — their “guide” to the financial crisis is probably one of the best — but PM in particular is known for their ‘laymen’ approach to reporting on economics. Oftentimes that’s helpful, but not especially in the case of the section on kids:

As I got further into this story, I started hearing about another group of people on disability: kids. People in Hale County told me that what you want is a kid who can “pull a check.” Many people mentioned this, but I basically ignored it. It seemed like one of those things that maybe happened once or twice, got written up in the paper and became conversational fact among neighbors.

Then I looked at the numbers. I found that the number of kids on a program called Supplemental Security Income — a program for children and adults who are both poor and disabled — is almost seven times larger than it was 30 years ago.

The reporter, Chana Joffe-Walt, goes into some anecdotal detail afterwards, but I think the impressionistic damage is already wrought upon the reader’s mind — here are the moochers we always knew existed! Parents retarding their children’s progress to get their grimy hands on undeserved cash from hard-working folks, as I imagine some people I know would instinctually respond. Furthermore, the contextual picture doesn’t really expand past that point. Joffe-Walt concludes that portion with something most people would agree with; namely, that a child’s education shouldn’t be held back by disability or a program that “stands in opposition” to their potential.

That’s all well and good, I suppose. Who would oppose such a safe, centrist judgement? That isn’t the issue, though, again, it’s a matter of impressions. For some actually context here’s Harold Pollack in response to a similarly number-shocked Nicholas Kristof:

The ratio of children on cash assistance to children in poverty provides a useful, if imperfect measure of both program generosity and welfare dependence in America. As graphed below, the top green line represents the absolute number of children in poverty—more than 16 million people by 2010. The other two solid lines represent the number of children receiving AFDC/TANF and SSI, respectively, within a given year.


The most interesting curve is the dotted purple one, which is scaled to the right-vertical axis. This is the ratio of children receiving either form of cash assistance to the total population of children under the poverty line. About 28 percent of poor children received federal cash assistance in 2010. That’s less than half of the proportion observed at the passage of welfare reform.

So both Kristof and Joffe-Walt seem to think the most note-worthy aspect of children in poverty is the phenomenon of “pulling a check.” Not the sheer number of children in poverty in general. Certainly not the sheer drop-off in children receiving cash aid, period; the purple line in Pollack’s graph that represents both TANF and SSI. It’s an aspect of a portion of a portion of poor kids that deserves more attention, apparently.

This is why the overall picture is important when discussing this subject, for without it the impression of such stories may leave an outsized imprint on people’s perspective. I’m afraid that rather than simply putting a human face on a complicated subject, it ends up confirming people’s pre-existing biases against aid to low-income Americans. Moreover, I fear that it adds to the (morally repugnant) stigmatization efforts that prevent people from getting the help they may desperately need. Children that “pull a check” is a disturbing story, representing a problem in need of a solution, to be sure, but almost always complicated and clearly less prevalent than the attention it receives. It’s also an effective media angle for piquing interest and clicks. When folks talk about media bias, this is what they should be referring to; not on the matter of ideology but for what is unique and newsworthy.


2 responses to “On “pulling a check” in disability

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