Explaining the ‘mystery’ of where all the disabled are coming from


The apparent explosion in Social Security disability claimants in recent years has provided endless fodder for critics of the program. Their favored explanation is that the growth in the ranks of the disabled, from 250,000 new claimants a year in 1970 to nearly 900,000 in 2008, comes from fraud or laziness.

A new study by two economists at the Social Security Administration should put that to rest. After examining 36 years of demographic data, David Pattison and Hilary Waldron found that population growth, the aging of the baby boom generation, and the increase in the proportion of women in the workforce accounted for 90% of the increase in the disabled population -- and 94% of the increase in the more recent 1990-2008 period.

The rest is accounted for by an increase in the “disability incidence rate,” defined simply as the factor that’s left after the others are accounted for. But as they point out, the incidence rate actually has been falling over the last 18 years.


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The findings are a reminder that disability is heavily influenced by age, and that America’s workforce aged rapidly as baby boomers got older. In 1970, some boomers were too young to be working; by 2008, some were beginning to retire. As boomers moved into disability-prone ages (think the late 40s through the mid-60s), the rate of disability in the population would have risen even if none of the other factors was present.

Pattison’s and Waldron’s work takes on special importance today, as the disability program faces a near-term fiscal crisis. The exhaustion of the program’s resources, which could strike as early as 2016, demands action by Congress. in the past, the underfunding of Social Security disability has been addressed by shifting money out of the program’s old age trust fund to shore up the disability fund.

Something better and longer-lasting is required this time, but that effort isn’t helped by the sort of uninformed demonizing of the disability population retailed by people like Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). Coburn appeared on “60 Minutes” not long ago to wonder aloud where all the disabled people came from. If he only asked the Social Security Administration, he’d know the answer. But does he want to know? Nor does it help for “60 Minutes,” National Public Radio and other national news organizations to report on disability without doing their homework. With the publication of this latest study, they have one less excuse for getting it wrong.