A Closer Look at Recent Increases in Disabled Employment

December 11, 2023

In its monthly job reports, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) disaggregates certain labor force indicators by disability status. They do so using information from the Current Population Survey (CPS), which includes a set of questions about “serious difficulty” with vision, hearing, ambulation, cognition, self-care, and independent living. Those who report any type of serious difficulty are classified as disabled. These questions provide a limited but useful view of how disability intersects with other socioeconomic characteristics.

Disabled people remain less likely to have jobs than non-disabled people, and those who are employed tend to be paid less than their nondisabled peers. However, 2023 has been a seemingly promising year for disabled employment. Both the labor force participation rate and the employment-to-population ratio for people with disabilities have been higher this year than any other since the CPS first began including its current set of disability questions in mid-2008.

As Paul Krugman noted last month, workforce participation among those with disabilities has soared. While Krugman interprets this as a sign that more marginalized adults are empowered to find work, there is more to this particular indicator than meets the eye. While the number of working-age disabled people with jobs has increased, the number without jobs has been fairly steady since 2018 (Figure 1). This suggests that the recent increase in employment among disabled nonelderly adults isn’t necessarily the result of disabled people who didn’t have jobs before getting jobs now. The increase in disabled employment among those ages 18 to 64 may instead reflect an overall increase in the number of disabled working-age people. This is something we at CEPR noted earlier this year, and the trend continues to hold.

Figure 1

One potential factor driving the recent increase in nonelderly adults with disabilities is Long COVID. Millions of people in the US report lingering symptoms following infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. One of the trademark symptom clusters associated with Long COVID involves cognitive dysfunction, sometimes referred to as “brain fog” (though sufferers emphasize that their conditions can be much more debilitating than the term “brain fog” might suggest). While the CPS does not ask about Long COVID specifically, previous research has demonstrated a strong link between increased reports of cognitive difficulty and Long COVID, making the former the best proxy we have for the latter in the CPS.

As Francesca Paris noted in another recent New York Times piece, more nonelderly people in the US are now reporting cognitive difficulty. Paris further breaks down these trends and notes that younger adults — those under the age of 45 — appear to be driving the surge in cognitive dysfunction. Meanwhile, surveys that ask about Long COVID specifically have found that the condition disproportionately affects women. As shown in Figure 2, there is a marked gender difference even within the age cohort Paris examines. While there has been a consistent upward trend in the share of young men reporting cognitive difficulty, this predates the pandemic, and its trajectory more or less continued after the pandemic began. By contrast, the share of younger women who reported serious cognitive difficulty was fairly flat prior to the pandemic, and only began to climb sharply after COVID-19 emerged. The ongoing rise in cognitive dysfunction among men is certainly concerning, but the sharp rise among women deserves attention given its potential link to Long COVID gender disparities.

Figure 2

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