Charles Lane Finds it Paradoxical that the Government Provides Assistance to Workers Whose Disabilities Keep Them From Working

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Tuesday, 31 July 2012 05:15

I'm serious. The Washington Post columnist notes the Americans With Disability Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating against workers because they have a disability, then complains about the paradox that the Social Security disability program gives money to people with disabilities who can't work. I don't really see the paradox in trying to make it easier for people with disabilities to find jobs while still supporting those whose disabilities don't allow them to work, but maybe that's why I don't write for the WAPO.

Anyhow, Lane goes on to note that the disability payments have doubled as a share of GDP over the last three decades, then asks, "what's going on?" He tells readers:

"There’s no evidence that workers in general are substantially less healthy than they used to be."

Umm, actually that is not true. The workforce has aged substantially in the last three decades. In the 1980, the huge baby boom cohort was in their 20s and early 30s, today they are in their 50s and 60s. Workers in their 50s and 60s are far more likely to have disabilities that keep them from working than workers in their 20s and 30s. Even Lane himself notes the aging of the workforce later in the piece.

There is also the paradox (there's that word again) that improvements in health care can increase disability rates. Suppose a worker has a disease like AIDS or cancer. Improvements in treatment can keep this worker alive much longer, but may not allow them to go back to work.

There are also other factors that would increase disability rolls that have nothing to do with more freeloaders, most importantly the increase in the percentage of women who have worked long enough to be eligible for disability. According to the Congressional Budget Office the percentage of the working age population eligible for disability increased from 62 percent in 1970 to 75 percent in 2009.

As this report also notes, disability rolls tend to increase in economic downturns. This is the point that seems to concern Lane, that many workers turn to disability when their unemployment benefits run out. 

While Lane sees something pernicious in this story, with the disabled pocketing checks that average a bit more than $1,100 a month at the expense of the rest of us (and also getting Medicare after two years), there is another way to view this picture. Many people with various types of physical and psychological problems work.

It is likely the case that these disabilities do reduce their productivity on the job. When employers are looking to cut back their work force, they may be more likely to lay off a worker whose bad back makes them slower than other workers or a person with fits of depression that prevent them from functioning for periods of time. Much of the answer in this story would seem to be that if we keep the economy operating at high levels of employment there will be job opportunities for these workers. That would bring us back to our friend stimulus, but Lane and the Washington Post don't like to talk about such things. (It's all so complicated, we just can't know if it works.)

Anyhow, we certainly can do better in making it easier for workers to leave disability and get back in the workforce. There also are freeloaders on the program who should be working. But all the evidence suggests that the bulk of the rise in disability is due to changes in the health of the workforce and the economy, not a sudden proliferation of freeloaders.

 

[Addendum: Charles Lane didn't address this issue, but since it has come up in comments and elsewhere, disability payments actually increased more rapidly under President Bush (the second) than under President Obama. This means that if we want to point fingers at a president pandering to freeloaders, our target should be the last occupant of the White House, not the current one.]