Jobless and Taking the “Disability Option”
The above chart shows the “labor force participation rate.” This statistic represents the share of working-age Americans who are either employed or unemployed but looking for work. It is not a pretty picture. Only 63.7% of working-age Americans are currently in the workforce – the lowest in almost 29 years!
To put it another way, 36.3% of working-age Americans do not have a job and are not even looking.
What are they doing–how are they surviving–if they aren’t working? Well, according to Art Cashin, evidently they are going on disability. According to a report from JPMorgan:
…increases in the number of disability benefits recipients account for about a quarter of the decline in employment participation. Furthermore during recessions the number of new disability claims actually increases, even though the number of jobs with higher injury incidence (such as construction) generally declines. Try explaining that one… Half of the benefit recipients suffer from “mental disorders” and “musculoskeletal disorders” (such as back pain). “Mood disorders” alone account for over 10% of this group. And once someone starts receiving these benefits, it’s almost impossible to take the off the program. In 2011 only 1% of the recipients lost their benefits because they were no longer deemed disabled. So how much is this program costing the US taxpayer? Apparently quite a bit.
Autor attributes disability’s expansion mainly to liberalized, more subjective eligibility rules and to a deteriorating job market for less-educated workers. Through the 1970s, strokes, heart attacks and cancer were major causes. Now, mental problems (depression, personality disorder) and musculoskeletal ailments (back pain, joint stress) dominate (54 percent of awards in 2009, nearly double 1981’s 28 percent). The paradox is plain. As physically grueling construction and factory jobs have shrunk, disability awards have gone up.
For many recipients, the disability program is a form of long-term unemployment insurance, argue Autor and his frequent collaborator Mark Duggan of the University of Pennsylvania. Benefit applications surge when joblessness rises. From 2001 to 2010, annual applications jumped 123 percent to 2.9 million. On average, recipients start receiving payments at age 49 and keep them until 66, when they switch to Social Security’s retiree benefits.