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News from EPI Disability Benefits Do Not Discourage Work

Recent attacks by conservatives on the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program have been motivated by the claim that there is an unfolding crisis caused by workers who are able to earn a living but are instead choosing to claim disability benefits. However, as EPI economist Monique Morrissey argues in the first four of a series of six blog posts, disability benefits do not have a significant negative effect on employment and there is no evidence that the program reduces labor force participation. Furthermore, Morrissey finds that disability awards have not increased and benefits have not become more generous in the past 20 years.

“When it comes to claims that ‘financial incentives’ are fueling a rise in disability claims, we should look for smoke and mirrors,” said Morrissey. “Very few beneficiaries of disability insurance would be able to support themselves if they weren’t receiving benefits and, in fact, nearly three-quarters of all applicants who are denied disability benefits were not earning a living two years later.”

In her first blog post, Morrissey finds that age-adjusted disability incidence has not trended upward in the past 20 years. Growth in enrollment that has occurred during this time period can be attributed to factors that have nothing to do with people gaming the system, including population growth, an increase in women’s labor force participation, the aging of the baby boomer generation, and an increase in life expectancy. Though there was a modest increase in disability incidence among women during this period, it was offset by a modest decline for men.

Morrissey’s second blog post demonstrates that disability benefits have not grown relative to earnings in over 30 years. The average benefit awarded is roughly a third of the average wage, a ratio that has remained unchanged since 1985, and there is little evidence that applicants are replacing a growing share of their past earnings with disability benefits. The value of disability benefits has declined relative to productivity per worker, which means program costs as a share of GDP increased much less than enrollment in the three decades before the Great Recession.

The disability program offers strong incentives for beneficiaries to stay in or return to the workforce, as Morrissey explains in her third blog post. Beneficiaries are allowed to earn up to $1,090 a month with no reduction in benefits. The fact that fewer than 10 percent take advantage of this opportunity suggests that for most beneficiaries, work is not an option. Even research cited by critics focusing on the employment of marginal applicants—the estimated 23 percent of SSDI applicants who might be rejected or accepted depending on examiner—shows that disability receipt has a negligible effect on employment.

Finally, Morrissey’s fourth blog post disputes the claim that the disability program has caused labor force participation in the United States to fall behind other industrialized countries. Critics charge that the disability program has caused unemployed workers in the United States to exit the labor force permanently. However, broader eligibility for unemployment benefits in Europe and more family-friendly labor policies are more plausible explanations for why prime-age labor force participation is now higher in major Western European economies than in the United States.

The fifth and sixth blog posts in this series, “Do Disability Trends Reflect a Liberalization of the Program’s Medical Criteria?” and “Is There a Consensus among Economists that the Disability Program is Broken?” are forthcoming on EPI’s Working Economics blog.