Why Are So Many People Disabled?

There are now 8.8 million workers receiving disability payments from Social Security. I find this number haunting…Thirty years ago, there was a 40-to-1 ratio between the total labor force and those workers receiving Social Security disability payments. Today that ratio is less than 18-to-1…

The steady rise in disability claims presents something of a puzzle. Medicine has improved substantially. Far fewer of us labor in dangerous industrial jobs like the ones that originally motivated disability insurance. The rate of deaths due to injuries has plummeted. Behavior that can cause disability, such as alcohol use and smoking, has declined substantially. American age-adjusted mortalityrates are far lower than in the past…

Duggan and Imberman argue that changes in the award formulas for recipients have made disability substantially more generous for poorer workers. For example, a male worker who is 30 to 39 and in the bottom 25th percentile of earnings distribution could expect disability insurance to pay 41 percent of his previous earnings in 1984 and 49 percent of his previous earnings in 2002.

More from Ed Glaeser.

Comments (11)

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  1. Paul H. says:

    This isn’t rocket science. We have so many disabled because we are paying people to be disabled.

  2. Studebaker says:

    Disability insurance is a form of early retirement for Baby Boomers who have grown accustomed to government handouts.

  3. Thomas says:

    The entitlement problem is also one of mentality.

  4. August says:

    Some more detailed statistics are here:

    Average age of disability for men has fallen from 59.4 in 1957 to 52.9 in 2010.

  5. Buster says:

    August offers some interesting statistics. Average age of disability fell 6.5 years in 43 years. During this same time, quality-adjusted life years and disability-free years of life have both increased. It’s all but impossible for these two facts to co-exist; they are relatively mutually exclusive. Basically, we’ve allowed disability insurance to become a welfare system for people who whose abilities have marginally declined due to natural aging, obesity or other natural events.

    When Social Security was established, most people didn’t live long enough to collect benefits. Those that did didn’t collect benefits for very long. Now people can expect to collect benefits for a decade or more. Some of them are looking for ways to begin collecting benefits even earlier.

  6. seyyed says:

    or maybe the definition of what constitutes disabled has been expanded to include more people

  7. Cindy says:

    This is a sad commentary. One thing I wonder is how we determine disability — so for instance if someone can’t perform their previous job but could potentially perform other jobs can they collect disability?

    It seems like a more productive situation would be providing an incentive fpr disabled individuals to learn careers that fit within their new parameters.

  8. Life of Pi says:

    There is so much exploitation. It is time to dismantle programs that encourage people to be less driven and productive. Sometimes disability is a mind set, this type of thinking must stop.

  9. Kyle says:

    Seyyed is right. The recognition of certain mental illnesses (like depression) has inflated eligibility. The NCPA did a comparison between Social Security Disability and VA Disability. It found that as a percentage, Social Security has twice as many people with mental disorders than the VBA.


  10. Buster says:

    Ability varies from the mean both early and late in life. Thus, The definition of disability partly has to do with how much variation below the mean is considered “disabled”. There is arguable a trend to include problems that contribute to disability that don’t truly make people disabled; just not highly productive. If a person who was never valued for their brainpower becomes obese and suffers a gradual loss of energy as they approach middle-age, they might be deemed disabled since they never had the potential to be a rocket scientist and can no longer work as a ditch digger. However, as a society, we have to decide how much of peoples’ reduction in ability we can afford to subsidize. Once disabled, people almost never willingly go back to work. Yet, there is ample evidence that ability does increase and decrease throughout stages of life. Disability insurance should not always be a lifelong benefit. We all are going to die, yet it is possible to buy term life insurance. The same should be true of disability insurance. This would encourage people to attempt to regain abilities they lose. This could include taking medications for mental conditions, losing weight, getting physical therapy, etc.

  11. Bob Hertz says:

    Over 30% of disability claims are for mental conditions, according to Glaeser.

    In a high-tech workplace, people with mental conditions are emphatically not wanted.

    Whereas in a logging camp or army or assembly line,
    some pretty hostile individuals were tolerated as long as they did their basic jobs. Plus, on assembly lines, unions often protected all workers.

    Inquiring minds might want to check out Martin Ford’s Light at the End of the Tunnel. He predicts that the number of unemployable individuals will grow and grow.
    Other than putting young males in prison and putting older males on disability, what are we going to do?

    I do not think we can incentivize employers to hire people they do not need and do not want. I think we may need a new WPA. It will not be pretty but better than the alternatives.