1 in 20 of Working-Age Americans Receives Disability Benefits

With the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program heading toward insolvency before the end of next year, lawmakers are looking for reforms to help individuals with disabilities but the capacity to work to return to work. Why it is so hard to get them to do so? Olga Khazan explores the question in a new piece in The Atlantic. Even those awarded benefits for a temporary condition tend to stay on Social Security for the rest of their lives.

It’s a tough but urgent question. The disability program has seen tremendous growth in both costs and the number of beneficiaries in recent decades. Since 1990, the share of the working-age population receiving disability benefits has more than doubled—from about 1 in 40 individuals to about 1 in 20 today. Spending on SSDI has doubled in real terms since 2000.

Opponents of broader reforms argue that these increases are a natural outcome of demographic and other explained factors and that therefore they are nothing to worry about. Robust research at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, however, suggests that the exact opposite is the case.

Researchers at the Bank find that only some of the increase in SSDI spending was due to aging baby boomers requiring increasing assistance with disability needs, to a greater number of working women becoming insured under the program, and to the Social Security retirement age edging up slightly over the past decade.