Disability programs are in the news due to the controversy over replenishing Social Security’s Disability Insurance (DI) trust fund. While people who receive disability payments from DI or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) live in every state, county, and congressional district, some areas have much higher rates of disability receipt than others — a fact that critics sometimes cite as evidence of problems with the programs. In reality, this “geography of disability” mostly reflects a few key demographic and economic factors, as our new paper explains.
States with high rates of disability receipt — especially in the South and Appalachia, and (less dramatically) in parts of New England and the Great Lakes region — tend to have populations that are less educated, older, and more blue-collar than other states, and to have fewer immigrants. In contrast, states along the Washington-to-Boston corridor, on the West Coast, and in the Great Plains and Mountain West have relatively few disability beneficiaries.
Here’s briefly why those patterns make sense (see our paper for details):
Examining the geographic pattern of disability receipt gives a valuable perspective on how these programs, even with their strict eligibility rules and modest benefits, protect some of the nation’s most vulnerable people. Policymakers should bear these facts in mind as they deal with the need to replenish DI’s finances by 2016.