The unexpectedly large number of American workers who piled into the Social Security Administration’s disability program during the recession and its aftermath threatens to cost the economy tens of billions a year in lost wages and diminished tax revenues.
Signs of the problem surfaced Friday, in a dismal jobs report that showed U.S. labor force participation rates falling last month to the lowest levels since 1979, the wrong direction for an economy that instead needs new legions of working men and women to drive growth and sustain a baby boomer generation headed to retirement.
Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist for J.P. Morgan, estimates that since the recession, the worker flight to the Social Security Disability Insurance program accounts for as much as a quarter of the puzzling drop in participation rates, a labor exodus with far-reaching economic consequences.
The unemployment rate in Friday’s report fell to a four-year low of 7.6%, which most times signals job growth. This time it reflected workers leaving the workforce, a problem that could persist: Economists say relatively few people are likely to trade their disability checks for paychecks, in part because the program doesn’t give much incentive to leave.
Former truck driver James Ottesen, who began receiving monthly payments in 2009, said, “I’m not real happy” about being on disability. “It kind of reminds me of welfare.” He said he would “like to get re-educated to do something” because “my body is broke but my mind is not.”