Causes for the High Number of Disability Beneficiaries

Contrary to what critics of the Social Security disability programs believe, the rising numbers of disability insurance beneficiaries are due to demographic factors and changes in the workforce.  In 2011, there were 8.6 million people receiving Social Security disability benefits, a number which had tripled since 1980 and doubled since 1995.  However, the numbers of working-age people, those 20-64 yrs. old, have not grown proportionately; since 1980, it has risen by 40% and by less than 20% since 1995.  In addition, as the baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, age into their later years, the likelihood of disability increases significantly, and indeed, this fact is evidenced in the higher statistics of disability cases.

Generally, workers with severe impairments receive benefits if they have worked at least a quarter of their adult lives.  Because women’s entry into the workforce swelled tremendously in the 1970s and 1980s, we are now seeing women meeting the above criteria since they have worked enough years.  In 1990, the ratio of male to female workers was 2 to 1; currently, the ratio is 1.1 to 1.

When disabled workers reach retirement age, they no longer receive disability benefits.  Instead, they start receiving their retirement benefits.  However, because the Social Security Administration raised the full retirement age from 65 to 66, more people on disability must wait to make the conversion.  In December 2011, 400,000 people between 65 and 66 (nearly 5% of beneficiaries) received disability benefits, but a decade ago, they would have been collecting their retirement benefits instead.

For a more detailed look at the statistics, please see the paper issued by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.