More on disability in the United States

On Monday, we posted about Chana Joffe-Walt's piece for "This American Life" called "Unfit for Work: The startling rise of disability in America."  Joffe-Walt chronicled the rising number of people on federal disability benefits and discussed poor U.S. counties (focusing in particular on one county in Alabama) where 25% of all working age people receive federal disability benefits. We updated that story with a critical response from Media Matters, which claimed that Joffe-Walt's reporting was chock full of errors. Other organizations agree that Joffe-Walt's story is misleading or misunderstands the federal disability programs. Go here, here, and here.


Go here for a powerful response to the Joffe-Walt story from eight former commissioners of the Social Security Administration. Here's a key excerpt:

The statutory standard for approval [of federal disability benefits] is very strict, and was made even more so in 1996. To implement this strict standard, Social Security Administration (SSA) regulations, policies, and procedures require extensive documentation and medical evidence at all levels of the application process. Less than one third of initial DI and SSI applications are approved, and only about 40 percent of adult DI and SSI applicants receive benefits even after all levels of appeal. As with adults, most children who apply are denied SSI, and only the most severely impaired qualify for benefits. * * * It is true [as reported by Joffe-Walt] that DI has grown significantly in the past 30 years. The growth that we’ve seen was predicted by actuaries as early as 1994 and is mostly the result of two factors: baby boomers entering their high disability years, and women entering the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s so that more are now "insured" for DI based on their own prior contributions. The increase in the number of children receiving SSI benefits in the past decade is similarly explained by larger economic factors, namely the increase in the number of poor and low‐income children. More than 1 in 5 U.S. children live in poverty today and some 44 percent live in low‐income households. Since SSI is a means‐tested program, more poor and low‐income children mean more children with disabilities are financially eligible for benefits. Importantly, the share of low‐income children who receive SSI benefits has remained constant at less than four percent.

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