Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has drawn fire in the past two weeks for comments he made at a breakfast event in New Hampshire on Jan. 14, regarding disability payments.
“Over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts,” he said. “Join the club. Who doesn’t get up a little anxious for work every day and their back hurts?”
With Republicans in Congress looking to make changes to the Social Security Disability Insurance program, the comments take on even more weight.
Rand maintains that changes to the system are necessary not because a social safety net shouldn’t exist, but rather because it’s supporting people who don’t need the help. “The thing is, in all of these programs there’s always somebody who’s deserving. But everybody in this room knows somebody who is gaming the system,” he said at the event.
Some Democratic outlets have used the comments to support a narrative of the Republican party as uncaring or out of touch with the needs of struggling Americans.
But nonpartisan entities such as PolitiFact and CNN have also questioned Paul’s assertions, noting that official figures don’t back up a claim that more than 50% of people who receive disability payments do so due to back pain or anxiety.
It’s difficult to determine exactly what percentage of aid recipients suffer from those problems, as the Social Security administration doesn’t use back pain and anxiety as groupings in their reported numbers. But even combining together the categories that might encompass these health problems — “mood disorders” (14%), “musculoskeletal system and connective tissue diseases” (29%) and “injuries” (4.9%) — doesn’t result in a figure over 50%.
Rand also made little attempt to address varying degrees of back pain. “Everybody over 40 has a little back pain,” he commented. While on one level that is true — some types of common back pain are controllable, with exercise being able to mitigate pain, speed recovery, prevent re-injury and reduce the risk of permanent disability — he classified only people with visible conditions, such as being “paraplegic, quadriplegic” as “legitimately disabled.”
But according to the National Center for Health Statistics, back pain is the leading cause of disability for Americans younger than 45.
After being hit with a considerable backlash from Democrats over the claims, Paul’s office said that his comments were taken out of context. “We absolutely should take care of those truly in need of help,” the senator said in a statement to The Huffington Post. “But the system is broken, and when people can game the system, they are stealing from those who are truly disabled and won’t receive the care and aid they need.”