If you’ve paid into Social Security, become injured or sick, and can no longer earn more than $1,130 a month, you can get a monthly subsidy from the Disability Insurance Trust Fund. As Bloomberg notes, in 1990 fewer than 2.5% of working-age Americans were “on the check;” by 2015 the number stood at 5.2%, with geographical “disability belts” appearing across America.
Something changed in 2000…
That growth has left the fund in periodic need of rescues by Congress – most recently in 2015, when the Bipartisan Budget Act shifted money from Social Security’s old-age survivors’ fund to extend the solvency of the disability fund to 2023.
“None of us should be surprised that the cost of the program was rising,” says Stephen Goss, Social Security’s chief actuary.
He says the program’s growth is mostly a consequence of demographic change. Older workers are more likely to get sick, and as women have entered the workforce, they too have become eligible for benefits.
In 1956, when the disability insurance fund was created, qualification was based on a list of accepted medical conditions. In 1984, Congress broadened the criteria, giving more weight to chronic pain and mental disorders. The qualification process also became more subjective. Now, rather than check diagnostic conditions against a list, the process determines whether applicants are able to perform work that’s available. “It’s not as if you go to the doctor, the doctor says, ‘I’m sorry, son, you’ve got disability,’ ” Autor says. “It’s a social construct, because it’s about whether you can work.”
The geographic distribution of people on disability tells a different story to the government’s “it’s a demographic/aging issue” argument: Workers who might have endured pain for a physical job apply for disability when jobs disappear.
This has created what some economists call “disability belts” – rural areas in Appalachia, the Deep South, and along the Arkansas-Missouri border.
In a 2013 paper, David Autor, an economist at MIT, and his co-authors wrote that Social Security disability insurance was the single biggest source of federal transfers into areas that had been directly affected by trade with China and Mexico. Dan Black, now at the University of Chicago, found in a 2004 paper that growth in disability claims in Appalachia dramatically outpaced those in the rest of the country. Although it’s not designed to, Autor says, Social Security disability benefits function as unemployment insurance.
In the coming Congress, Republican Representative French Hill, who represents Van Buren County, plans to reintroduce a disability insurance reform bill he wrote after hearing Autor, the MIT economist, present his analysis of the program—a talk that echoed things Hill had heard from folks back home. The bill would require more frequent reviews of disability recipients with nonpermanent conditions.