Disability Growth Disables the Country

Special blog post by Lewis Warne, an NCPA research associate.

Social Security Disability enrollment for workers, excluding disabled children and disabled widow(er)s, is growing much faster than the working age population.

  • Since 1991, workers on disability increased almost 170 percent, from 3,194,938 to 8,575,544
  • In the same period, the population between 18-64 increased only 26 percent, from 155,263,000 to 196,263,504

The increase is occurring despite the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990 prohibiting employment discrimination and requiring businesses to make reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities.

While the average monthly disability benefit between 2005 and 2010 was only $1,139, enrollment in disability opens doors to other entitlement programs.  Most enrollees gain Medicare eligibility after 24 month on disability, and may also qualify for federal student loan forgiveness. Enrollees that are approved for SSDI can also be eligible for Medicaid in their state and are likely to receive food stamps and subsidized housing. In fact, workers receiving disability payments are discouraged from even part time work; if enrollees earn more than $1,040 per month they lose access to

all the benefits described above.

The substantial benefit loss above an income of $1,040 encourages workers to stay on disability, and has contributed to the out of proportion disability enrollment growth.

Comments (14)

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  1. Kyle says:

    So what you’re saying is..
    The ship is sinking, get out now?

  2. Neil says:

    Interesting that worker disability is growing faster than worker age. I think its troubling to see such a distinct discrepency.

  3. Elizzebeth says:

    What is the largest age population group that is depended on disability?

  4. Lewis says:

    @Elizzebeth In 1991 about 25% were over 60, now around 30% are. I’d attribute the change in this number to an aging demographic, and younger workers ageing into the over 60 group.

    Table 5 has more detailed information http://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/statcomps/supplement/2011/5d.html

  5. Life of Pi says:

    What criteria does one go by to be identified as a disabled individual? Surely, given this major increase, something must be going on in terms of what it means to be “disabled.”

  6. Kyle says:

    A lot of this is based on decreased thresholds for mental disorders. The numbers are outrageous.

  7. Gabriel Odom says:

    In a society of over-medication and entitlement, why work if you don’t absolutely have to? When I was growing up, I knew some folks on Medicaid and Food Stamps. One of their sons got a job at a bakery, and their Food Stamps went down more than the son was getting paid per month. They had to tell him that his job was costing the family money.

  8. Joe says:

    I believe it’s indicative of the decaying of our society – the you owe me and what can I get from government for free crowd – we just witnessed this in our recent election. We are rapidly approaching when 51% are on the government dole and then we are done as a country.

  9. ctmoderate says:

    As someone who is in the process of applying for SSI disability benefits for my 18 year old autistic son, is it possible that the autism epidemic has something to do with at least part of the increase? Also, medical advances probably mean that people who would have died in the past now survive, but very likely can’t work. From my perspective, as a mother of a child who will never be able to be gainfully employed, I think you need to dig into the reasons for the increase as opposed to just noting them and implying that benefits need to be cut.

  10. Pam says:

    @ctmoderate. Regarding your comments about SSI, I would like to point out that the chart above is measuring SSDI claims, not SSI. So those who have not been able to work their entire lives are not included in this discussion, and constitute a much smaller part of SSDI than do actual workers who have worked long enough to qualify for and receive disability payments. NCPA has published a few pieces on the reasons for increases in disability claims among workers. Since autism is typically diagnosed in children, it is not likely that an epidemic of autism is the cause. SSDI recipients have to have worked and earned a minimum number of disability credits. Also, reputable scholars on both sides have debated whether or not there truly is an epidemic of autism, since the causes are not exactly known.

    My heart goes out to you. I have a couple of friends who are raising autistic children. Thankfully, one of them is now a 24 year old man who can work in a limited capacity, but I know each case is different. I wish you all the best.

  11. ctmoderate says:

    Pam, but that gets to my second point. We’ve seen many medical advances in the last 20 years. Many people who may have died in the past are now surviving but unable to work. We’ve also been involved in 2 wars. How many of those young men and women who were injured serving our country are in those numbers. Again, I think you need to dig into why the numbers are increasing, and not just complain that it has happened.

  12. Pam says:

    @ctmoderate. There are some interesting correlations associated with the rise of disability. In the mid 1980s, the criteria pertaining to who is qualified as disabled was expanded. That could account for the rise in chronic pain and mood disorders among people under the age of 50. While it is true that the population is getting older and people are living longer, it does not explain completely the rise in disability claims. Moreover, the self-reported disability status of those over age 65 has actually declined, while increasing for those under 65. Also, there is a correlation between claims filed and economic downturns.

    At any rate, we have done a number of publications on the disability system and ways to improve it. I encourage you to check them out: http://www.ncpa.org/pub/ib109

    I am not sure the extent that you have had to deal with it, but I think most all of us can agree that it is costly, inefficient, and provides poor incentives for people who are partially disabled but still able to work to some degree.

  13. ctmoderate says:

    If I have the time, I will check them out. But it would make sense to me that self-reported disability claims over 65 would be fewer since at that point someone is eligible for SSI based on age and doesn’t have to go through the process of trying to qualify due to disability. From my own perspective, it’s a pretty trying process, so why would you go through it if you can just claim benefits automatically based on age? I would agree, however, that economic downturns cause people who may have not otherwise applied to apply for disabity benefits. I used to work for a company and whenever we announced plans to close a plant, disability claims soared. But then, if you are disabled in any way, getting work even in good economic times is tough. I have several friends with adult sons with autism who are high functioning enough to work and WANT to work. Unfortunately, they can’t find work. Even non-disabled people can’t find jobs right now. The problem is not “freeloaders” as some of the comments to this article suggest, but truly impacted individuals who probably just trying to survive.

  14. Kyle says:

    SSDI only compensates fully disabled veterans. The population of vets receiving both SSDI and VDC is exceptionally small.

    The most common reported injury for SSDI is mental disorders, followed by musculoskeletal. This is as a percentage of population — meaning that SSDI has a higher rate of mental disorders than the population who has experienced deployment.

    Freeloaders do exist and SSDI is structured so as to provide incentives not to work. There has been no concrete evidence to suggest an epidemic of debilitating illnesses — increases are a function of relaxed standards and economic hardship. People have “dug into it” and it is unfortunate that good people who ARE trying to find employment suffer from the stigma imposed by those who simply want to live off the system.

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