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The State of Disability

National Public Radio is running a series of reports about the Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) program, as I mentioned yesterday.  One of its pieces focused on Hale County, Alabama, and alleged an unusually high receipt of disability benefits.  Other researchers have noted this geographic variation — and implied that it’s evidence of a problem-ridden program.  Not quite.

Nationwide, about 6 percent of the nation’s working-age population receive disability payments from Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), but some southern and Appalachian states have much higher rates — over 10 percent.  This disparity, though, mostly reflects a few key demographic and economic factors:

  • Less-educated workforce. This is by far the most powerful factor:  states with low rates of high-school completion generally have high rates of disability receipt, as you can see by comparing the two maps below.  For older workers, SSI and Social Security disability insurance explicitly consider vocational and educational factors in determining eligibility, since less-educated people whose physical or mental impairments are so severe that they can’t do their previous work are less able to adapt to other employment than better-educated people are.
  • Older workforce. The risk of disability rises sharply with age.  The typical disability insurance beneficiary is in late middle age — 70 percent are over age 50, and 30 percent are 60 or older.  New England and Appalachia have a higher median age than most of the rest of the country, which boosts their rates of disability receipt compared with the “young” Southwest and West.
  • Fewer immigrants. Immigrants, especially recent arrivals, are far less likely than native-born citizens to collect disability benefits.  States with large foreign-born populations — notably California, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Florida, and Texas — have fewer disability recipients than you’d expect based solely on their age and educational characteristics.
  • Industry-based economy. States where much of the workforce is employed in forestry, mining, and manufacturing — such as the industrial Midwest and many southern and Appalachian states — tend to have more disability recipients than states with more service-oriented economies, all else being equal.  Such jobs are often physically demanding and involve skills that don’t transfer readily to other forms of work — two factors that the programs’ eligibility rules for older applicants take into account.

Some people expect other factors, such as poverty and unemployment rates, to explain the variation of disability rates across states.  But statistically, they’re less important than the four factors listed here.