Nick Kristof Needs to Stop Spouting (and Tweeting) Shoddy Statistics About Young People with Severe Disabilities

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Written by Shawn Fremstad   
Thursday, 20 December 2012 12:15

I wrote last week about Nick Kristof's irresponsible call to cut Supplemental Security Income for severely disabled children. Since then Kristof has received an outpouring of criticism for the numerous errors of fact he made in the story as well as his oddly timed embrace of the Romney 2012 campaign's "anti-entitlement strategy." On the fact-checking front, notable responses include ones by Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, Kathy Ruffing and LaDonna Pavetti of CBPP, and University of Chicago prof and health policy expert Harold Pollack.

Since then Kristof has only doubled down, although limiting himself to the 140 characters allowed by Twitter, including by pompously citing —in Chinese of course!—one of Chairman Mao's maxims ("实 事求是" or seek truth from facts") and reiterating some shoddy statistics included in his initial article: "But when 8% of poor kids get SSI & 2/3 then graduate immediately to adult disability, you're perpetuating poverty."

Let's do some 实事求是'ing of own on this last claim:

"8% of poor kids get SSI":  No, it's half that—less than 3.9% of low-income kids receive SSI. Kristof got 8% from a truth seeker affiliated with AEI who manufactured it by dividing the number of children receiving SSI (1.28 million in 2011)  by the number of children living below the federal poverty line (16.1 million in 2011). This would be fine if SSI were limited to kids with incomes below the federal poverty line, but it's not. In fact, about half or more of the children receiving SSI have incomes above the federal poverty line, mostly between 100-200% of the poverty line. So, an accurate SSI participation statistic would use the number of low-income kids below 200% of the poverty line (32.7 million in 2011). Dividing the 1.28 million kids receiving SSI by the 32.7 million kids under 200 percent of poverty gets us 3.9% not 8%.

"2/3rds of adult kids graduate immediately to adult disability" or as Kristof claims in his article: "a 2009 study found that nearly two-thirds of these children make the transition at age 18 into S.S.I. for the adult disabled. They may never hold a job in their entire lives and are condemned to a life of poverty on the dole — and that’s the outcome of a program intended to fight poverty.": Harold Pollack's response to Kristof on this is worth quoting in full:

I tracked down the 2009 study that Kristof had read. It's by Jeffrey Hemmeter, Jacqueline Kauff, and David Wittenberg. I read the study rather differently. ... about two-thirds of youth on at age 17 are recertified at age 19 for the adult SSI program. Yet I read these numbers differently. Indeed the study's other main finding is that "youth with behavioral disorders and mental disorders other than mental retardation are much less likely to receive SSI at age 19." Moreover, the authors express concerns that these youth who do not transition into adult SSI do poorly. It seems to me that the childhood SSI program runs a reasonably tight ship. Most children deemed eligible for childhood benefits have identified, serious, and chronic impairments that make them SSI-eligible when they are older. Youth with the fuzzier conditions that Kristof questions are precisely those most likely to leave the program at adulthood.

I'd also add that Kristoff's line implying that most of these severely disabled kids will "never hold a job in their entire lives and are condemned to a life of poverty on the dole" is a shoddy and misleading claim. Some important facts to know here (drawn from the same 2009 study and new research released this week by SSA/Mathematica:

1) 41% of severely disabled children receiving SSI worked at some point between age 16 and 17. Not surprisingly, youth in general and youth with less severe disabilities have higher employment rates, but 41% at age 16-17 is nothing to sneeze at given the nature of these children's disabilities.

2) Disabled youth who don't continue receiving SSI at age 19 struggle and have special health care needs. Among those who are employed at age 19, average earnings are a mere $5,428; 40% of disabled youth who leave SSI at age 19 aren't employed. I imagine some of these kids who stop getting help from SSI at age 19 are "condemned to a life of poverty" and many of them would have been much better off if they had continued to receive SSI along with additional supports and services.

3) It's important to look at longitudinal data and not just cross-sectional data. For example, in the new SSA/Mathematica study, researchers track the employment histories of severely disabled 18-19 year olds who started receiving SSI in 1996. They found that about 30 percent of them had ever been employed by 1998 with the cumulative employment percentage increasing to 60% by the mid-2000s.  

Can we do better? Of course, but the way to do better doesn't involve tearing down Supplemental Security and other vital work and education supports for young people with severe disabilities. Instead, as Rebecca Vallas and I argue in a recent commentary, we need to build on existing and sound foundations. Just to highlight one: currently young workers (under age 25) are ineligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit unless they have children of their own. And, for disabled workers over age 24 who are eligible for the EITC, it provides very little help unless they have children (the maximum credit for childless workers is only $400). This makes no sense at all.

Tags: inequality | poverty | Supplemental Security Income