As scientists and statisticians will tell you, correlation does not imply causation, a phrase that means that just because two things occur together, we cannot automatically conclude that one thing caused the other. Keep the phrase in mind as politicians and policymakers debate the various ways we can account for the rapid growth in Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits in recent years. The problem with this issue lies in deciding how to frame it. What factors are responsible for the growth in disability beneficiaries?
Google search data indicates that, in the last several years, a search for “Social Security Disability” has jumped 36 percent. This coincides with other jumps concerning Social Security Disability benefits. From 1970 to the early 1990s, the number of disability beneficiaries grew from two million to four million. The past 20 years has seen more than a doubling of that number, as we near 10 million disability beneficiaries.
The number of disability applicants has also skyrocketed. From 1985 to 2008, there were only 14 times that more than 200,000 people applied for SSDI benefits in a single month. From the fall of 2008 through February of this year, applicants numbered between 200,000 and 300,000 every month but six. This time period, of course, coincided with the so-called “Great Recession.” The Social Security Administration, thus, has had to process about a quarter of a million SSDI applicants every month.
Some of the explanations for the growth in SSDI applicants and beneficiaries include: (1) high unemployment rates, (2) the baby boomer generation is now in the age group most likely to become disabled, and (3) the postponement by Congress of the retirement age from 65 to 67. With regard to the first of those three items, some recent articles have suggested that SSDI has become merely an extension for unemployment benefits. That is not true. However, during times of very low unemployment, the need for workers often causes employers to tolerate problems such as excessive absenteeism or physical limitations that may not be tolerated at other times. Thus, people with disabilities may be able to keep a job during times of low unemployment merely because the employers are more lenient. During times of high unemployment, employers are less likely to tolerate excessive absenteeism or other problems related to disabilities. Thus, during times of high unemployment, those employees who cannot maintain competitive employment often apply for SSDI, and many qualify. However, the fact that such individuals may qualify for SSDI does not mean that SSDI is merely an extension of unemployment or that everyone who is unemployed can get SSDI.
What has your experience been with SSDI benefits and your family members or your community? Has the poor economy played a factor in your ability to find work?