For the radio program "This American Life," Chana Joffe-Walt has written "Unfit for Work: The startling rise of disability in America."
Here are a few stats cited in Joffe-Wait's essay: (1) In West Virginia, 9% of all working-age people (people between 18 and 64) receive federal disability benefits. (2) In some U.S. counties, that figure is 25%; (3) In 1961, the leading cause of disability among people receiving federal disability benefits was heart disease and stroke, at nearly 26%; mental illness and development disabilities accounted for less than 10%. (4) Today, the leading causes are back pain and other musculoskeletal problems, at just under 34%, and mental illness and developmental disabilities, at 19.2%. (5) 14 million Americans receive federal disability benefits. (6) Despite passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (which is aimed at bringing disabled people into the workforce) and improvements in medical care (which sometimes make people more functional), the number of people found disabled by the federal government is expanding (doubling in just the last 15 years).
Here is the beginning of Joffe-Walt's report:
In the past three decades, the number of
Americans who are on disability has skyrocketed. The rise has come even
as medical advances have allowed many more people to remain on the job,
and new laws have banned workplace discrimination against the disabled.
Every month, 14 million people now get a disability check from the
government. The federal government spends more money each year on cash
payments for disabled former workers than it spends on food stamps and
welfare combined. Yet people relying on disability payments are often
overlooked in discussions of the social safety net. The vast majority of
people on federal disability do not work. Yet because they are not technically part of the labor force, they are not counted among the unemployed. In other words, people on disability don't show up in any of
the places we usually look to see how the economy is doing. But the
story of these programs — who goes on them, and why, and what happens
after that — is, to a large extent, the story of the U.S. economy. It's
the story not only of an aging workforce, but also of a hidden,
increasingly expensive safety net. For the past six months, I've been reporting on the
growth of federal disability programs. I've been trying to understand
what disability means for American workers, and, more broadly, what it
means for poor people in America nearly 20 years after we ended welfare
as we knew it. Here's what I found.
To listen to the entire story, go here.
UPDATE: Media Matters has published this item that says that the "This American Life" piece is riddled with errors.