Overpayment Outrage

Each year the Social Security Administration issues billions of dollars in overpayments to recipients whose income or other qualifying criteria have changed, or as the result of agency miscalculations. Under federal law, the Social Security Administration is required to demand repayment of this money, treating it as debts to the federal government. These “clawbacks” can happen even decades after the initial overpayments occurred and even when they resulted from an agency mistake. In “Overpayment Outrage,” a collaboration that spanned a national nonprofit newsroom (KFF Health News) and Cox Media Group, a network of local TV news stations and their investigative and Washington, D.C. bureaus, the team dug into the overpayment issue and the impacts of clawbacks on vulnerable people. They found that overpayments happen due to chronic understaffing at SSA, systemic delays in data tracking, and a process that made income changes and eligibility criteria invisible to those who were determining whether to issue a clawback demand. The reporting lays out potential solutions to address the legislative, funding, and process failures that cause this systemic problem. It reveals how Congress has demanded action to reduce excessive Social Security spending without adequately funding the agency that administers it, and examines the layers of complex policy, regulation, and procedural rules that employees and recipients of social security have to navigate to make the system work. The collaborative nature of the project and its publication in both print and TV outlets helped elevate the reach and impacts of the project.

For this impressive untangling of the root causes of problems in the functioning of government and the implementation of public policy, and explaining how this problem both impacted individuals and was not directly caused by them, “Overpayment Outrage” is the winner of the Goldsmith Awards’ inaugural Special Citation for Reporting on Government.

The Goldsmith Special Citation for Reporting on Government is intended to honor explanatory and/or investigative reporting that focuses on the functioning of government and the implementation of public policy. It aims to lift up reporting that illuminates the nitty gritty of governing – the people, systems, structures, and policies that layer together to make a government work, and, when it doesn’t, understanding why. The teams from Cox Media Group and KFF Health News are deserving of this special citation for their reporting on “Overpayment Outrage” because of the lengths they went to understand why failures happened, the impacts those failures have on individuals and communities, and the solutions suggested by their reporting – many of which were already being implemented in the weeks and months after the story came to light.

The Backchannel

Reporter Anna Wolfe read a startling statistic published in a 2017 report: Mississippi, the most impoverished state in the nation, was approving just 1.5% of families applying for cash welfare assistance. That statistic sent Wolfe looking for where the state was sending the federal funds, if not to families who needed them. Over the next five years, Wolfe submitted more than 80 public records requests and faced repeated stonewalling from government officials and agencies. Through the challenging reporting process, she discovered that the state was funneling tens of millions-worth of welfare grants through two nonprofits under the guise of former Gov. Phil Bryant’s nebulous anti-poverty program called Families First for Mississippi, which refused to provide direct aid, instead leading needy families down dead ends. After the arrests of state welfare agency and nonprofit officials for embezzlement, Wolfe’s reporting didn’t stop: Through private text messages that officials have concealed from the public, Wolfe uncovered corruption and influence peddling extending all the way to Bryant and former NFL legend Brett Favre. Bryant admitted to many of the report’s findings in a rare on-the-record interview. Multiple defendants have since come forward with allegations against Bryant or have relied on the reporting in court filings that insist Bryant be held accountable. Congressman Bennie Thompson and the NAACP president urged the U.S. Attorney General and Department of Justice to investigate Bryant’s otherwise ignored role in the scandal, and Thompson has vowed to hold congressional hearings. State lawmakers, citing the investigation, held multiple hearings about how the state could better spend its welfare grants. Several legislators filed bills in early 2023 to reform the welfare agency’s management and oversight over federal funds. Meanwhile, federal criminal investigations into the scandal continue.