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Not So Hale and Hearty: Explaining Disability Rates in One Alabama County

News stories and bloggers continue to point to Hale County, Alabama, as the prototypical example of a place where many residents receive federal disability benefits.  But, Hale County is anything but typical.

We think that about one in five Hale County residents between 20 and 64 receives disability benefits from Social Security or Supplemental Security Income, based on data here and here. That’s far above the national average of about one in 16.  We’ve previously pointed out that disability receipt varies by geography.  Several facts make Hale County an outlier:

  • An unusual age distribution.  Among Hale County’s working-age population, relatively few are under age 50, and large numbers are aged 50-64 (see chart).  The risk of disability rises sharply with age.  People are roughly twice as likely to be disabled at age 50 as at 40, and twice as likely to be disabled at 60 as at 50.  Hale’s demographics put its population squarely in those high-risk years.
  • Low educational attainment.  Hale’s high-school completion rate, at 71 percent, is well below Alabama’s (81.9 percent) and even further below the national average (85.4 percent).  Limited education narrows the kind of work that people can do and their ability to move into other jobs when impairment strikes — which is why the law specifically directs the Social Security Administration to weigh vocational and educational factors for older workers when sifting through disability applications.
  • A lopsided industry mix.  Compared with the nation as a whole — and even with Alabama — employment in Hale County heavily skews toward farming, forestry, fishing, and manufacturing.  As we’ve noted, areas with a blue-collar industry mix (such as this one) tend to have higher rates of disability receipt than more service-oriented economies, because the work is arduous and the skills often not transferable.  One of Hale County’s main industries, catfish processing, exemplifies the kind of slippery, noisy, and physically demanding work that would be impossible for someone with severe impairments to perform.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranks Hale 65th out of 67 counties in Alabama — and even further behind national norms — on a variety of health measures.  Hale’s statistics on premature death, lack of health insurance, the number of doctors and dentists per capita, motor vehicle crashes, and even access to safe drinking water are bleak.

These facts show not just how untypical Hale County is — but how important the disability programs are in providing a safety net for some of our most vulnerable citizens.