The Corner

The Growth of Disability

David Brooks recently wrote:

One-fifth of all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work.

According to figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has a smaller share of prime age men in the work force than any other G-7 nation. The number of Americans on the permanent disability rolls, meanwhile, has steadily increased. Ten years ago, 5 million Americans collected a federal disability benefit. Now 8.2 million do. That costs taxpayers $115 billion a year, or about $1,500 per household. Government actuaries predict that the trust fund that pays for these benefits will run out of money within seven years.

I was especially struck by the disability numbers, and in particular I was curious about how they broke down by age. So, using federal disability data and population data from 2000 and 2009, I created a quick-and-dirty Excel spreadsheet that you can download here or view online here.

First of all, very little of the total increase in disability beneficiaries can be blamed on the young. Forty percent of the additional case load comes from those 60 and up; more than 90 percent comes from those 45 and older.

In addition, much of the increase in disability can be attributed to the fact that our population is aging. Look at the 55–59 age group: The number of beneficiaries from this group went up 62 percent, but the group’s size increased 39 percent, too.

Still, even if we use per capita numbers, we see that disability claims have increased in every single age group. This may be a result of more people applying — applications have grown by an even higher proportion than awards have — which in turn might be blamed on the fact that awards have been growing bigger and more attractive.


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