Americans are very generous to people with disabilities. Since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, millions of public and private dollars have been spent on curb cuts, bus lifts, and special elevators.
The idea has been to enable people with disabilities to live and work with the same ease as others as they make their way forward in life. I feel sure the large majority of Americans are pleased that we are doing this.
But there is another federal program for people with disabilities that has had an unhappier effect. This is the disability-insurance (DI) program, which is part of Social Security.
The idea is to provide income for those whose health makes them unable to work. For many years, it was a small and inexpensive program that few people or politicians paid much attention to.
In his recent book, A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic, my American Enterprise Institute colleague Nicholas Eberstadt has shown how DI has grown in recent years.
In 1960, some 455,000 workers were receiving disability payments. In 2011, the number was 8,600,000. In 1960, the percentage of the economically active population aged 18 to 64 years old receiving disability benefits was 0.65 percent. In 2010, it was 5.6 percent.
Some four decades ago, when I was a law clerk to a federal judge, I had occasion to read briefs in cases appealing the denial of disability benefits. The Social Security Administration then seemed pretty strict in denying benefits in dubious cases. The courts were not much more openhanded.
Things have changed. Americans have grown healthier, and significantly lower numbers die before 65 than was the case a half-century ago. Nevertheless, the disability rolls have ballooned.
One reason is that the government seems to have gotten more openhanded with those claiming vague ailments. Eberstadt points out that in 1960, only one-fifth of disability benefits went to those with “mood disorders” and “musculoskeletal” problems. In 2011, nearly half of those on disability voiced such complaints.
“It is exceptionally difficult — for all practical purposes, impossible,” writes Eberstadt, “for a medical professional to disprove a patient’s claim that he or she is suffering from sad feelings or back pain.”
In other words, many people are gaming or defrauding the system. This includes not only disability recipients but health-care professionals, lawyers, and others who run ads promising to get you disability benefits.
Between 1996 and 2011, the private sector generated 8.8 million new jobs, and 4.1 million people entered the disability rolls.
The ratio of disability cases to new jobs has been even worse during the sluggish recovery from the 2007–09 recession. Between January 2010 and December 2011, there were 1,730,000 new jobs and 790,000 new people collecting disability.
This is not just a matter of laid-off workers in their 50s or early 60s qualifying for disability in the years before they become eligible for Social Security old-age benefits.
In 2011, 15 percent of disability recipients were in their 30s or early 40s. Concludes Eberstadt, “Collecting disability is an increasingly important profession in America these days.”
Disability insurance is no longer a small program. The government transfers some $130 billion obtained from taxpayers or borrowed from purchasers of Treasury bonds to disability beneficiaries every year.
But there is also a human cost. Consider the plight of someone who at some level knows he can work but decides to collect disability payments instead.
That person is not likely to ever seek work again, especially if the sluggish recovery turns out to be the new normal.
He may be gleeful that he was able to game the system or just grimly determined to get what he can in a tough situation. But he will not be able to get the satisfaction of earned success from honest work that contributes something to society and the economy.
I use the masculine pronoun intentionally, because an increasing number of American men have dropped out of the work force altogether. In 1948, 89 percent of men age 20 and over were in the work force.
In 2011, 73 percent were. Only a small amount of that change results from an aging population. Jobs have become physically less grueling and economically more rewarding than they were in 1948.
The Americans with Disabilities Act helped many people move forward and contribute to society. The explosive growth of disability insurance has had an opposite effect.
— Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner. © 2012 The Washington Examiner