Senior Policy Analyst
In light of the Washington Post’s new profile of a Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) applicant in Lamar County, Alabama, let’s put the story in its proper context:
Places with older, less educated, more blue-collar populations have higher disability rates. Places with higher rates — especially in the South and Appalachia — tend to have populations that are older, less educated, and more blue-collar, and to have fewer immigrants. More of their residents suffer from debilitating health problems and can no longer support themselves through work. That’s because the risk of disability rises sharply with age and falls with education level.
Local job market conditions are not a factor in deciding whether an applicant qualifies for benefits. The law requires workers to prove that they can’t earn substantial wages anywhere across the economy — regardless of whether such work exists where they live, whether a specific job vacancy exists, or whether they would be hired.
Places like Lamar County, Alabama face dire problems — but high rates of disability receipt are a result of those problems, not the cause. Many rural communities have been hollowed out as younger, healthier, and better-educated residents leave for greater opportunities and the remaining population ages faster than the rest of the country. Residents often struggle to access the health care they need to stay healthy enough to work — particularly in states like Alabama, which did not adopt the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion.
These struggling rural communities deserve more attention from policymakers. But disability benefits provide residents of these communities — and others across the country who can no longer support themselves through work due to severe impairments — with badly needed support.