EditorialsKevin King

Disabled nation


By Kevin King –
Managing Editor

According to data release by the Social Security Administration, folks receiving disability benefits has reached an all time high of nearly 11 million. If those on disability were to form their own state, it would be the 8th most populated in the union. To be more specific, it would fall in line between Georgia and Ohio.

Think about that, an entire, highly populated state, would be made up entirely of those unable to work and receiving benefits. This number has grown, steadily, for 196 straight months. That’s more than 16 years that more and more people are able to work less and less.

Now numbers can be misleading. A skeptic would point out that a total number may not be of concern, because the American population has also increased over that 16 year period. Further digging however provides the greatest amount of perspective.

In 1956 disability benefits were added to Social Security. By 1968, 12 years into the program, there were 1.2 million Americans receiving benefits. When compared to full time workers, the ratio was 51 to 1. In other words, for every person on disability there were 51 Americans working to pay into the system. Less than 2% of the working population were disabled.

Fast forward to 2013. Any guesses as to what the current pay-in to pay-out ratio is? As the number of beneficiaries has hit a record high, the number of full time workers has proportionately decreased. Today’s ratio is an abysmal 13 to 1. Now, nearly 8% of the working population is disabled.

What could have lead to this drastic change? When looking at unemployment data, there is a direct correlation with disability beneficiaries. As people lose their jobs, they migrate over to not-working, and getting paid. This may sound like a callous generalization, but during every major economic recession, when unemployment spikes, so do applications for disability. (See figure 1).

Why would people, who suddenly lost their jobs, now be unable to work at all? Well, in 1980, President Carter signed the Disability Amendments Act of 1980 which put tighter restrictions on who is eligible for benefits. When President Reagan stepped up enforcement of this act, it stripped benefits from one million recipients and caused a huge outcry and political hostilities. So, in 1984 to save themselves for reelection, both the House and the Senate unanimously supported a relaxation in requirements which was signed into law by Reagan. Thus began the accessibility of benefits.

This new act, according to a report in Forbes magazine, “instructed the government to place greater weight on applicants’ own assessments of their disability, especially when it came to pain and discomfort; to replace the government’s medical assessments with those of the applicants’ own doctors; and to loosen the screening criteria for mental illness, among other things. The overall effect was to create a giant loophole, by which an applicant’s subjective claim that he was in pain, or mentally incapacitated, would be enough to claim disability.”

The report continues, “The numbers back this up. While Americans may be gaining weight, they suffer from fewer disabling conditions than they did 40 years ago, thanks to advances in medical technology. A paper published by the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution, shows that while traditional medical causes of disability—cancer, stroke, heart attacks, and the like—have stayed relatively constant, Social Security disability benefits have exploded for people with musculoskeletal and mental disorders.”

So while medicine and healthcare improve, those unable to work increases. When unemployment rises, suddenly the numbers of those unable to be employed jump as well. While there are those in legitimate need of assistance, this data points to great abuse, which occurs with all entitlements. Either reform is needed or we’ll just become a disabled nation.

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