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Latest Conservative Attack on Social Security: Disability Fraud Hysteria

Move over Welfare Queen. The Disability King is the new pet scapegoat for all that’s wrong with America.

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Eberstadt goes on to complain that the biggest increases in disability claims have been for "musculoskeletal" problems and mental disorders, and shares his lay opinion that “it is impossible for a health professional to ascertain conclusively whether or not a patient is suffering from back pains or sad feelings.” (Conservatives reserve special ire for the rise in "mood disorder" claims, which include such conditions as major depression and bipolar disoder.)

Obviously, Eberstadt is indignant thinking that vast numbers of people filing for disability are faking it, a fear that has even been encouraged by liberals like Nicholas Kristof, who recently described dirt-poor Appalachians who misuse the Supplemental Security Income (based on financial need) by claiming that their children have intellectual disabilities in order to nab a $648 per month government check. “Some young people here don’t join the military…” Kristof notes solemnly, “because it’s easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments.” Obviously, these idlers are denying their country perfectly good cannon fodder. The nerve!

So what’s really going on with disability rolls? A close look shows that “arithmetically speaking,” Eberstadt is full of it. There has been a rise in the disability rolls all right, but mostly not for the reasons he puts forth. Jared Berstein, a former economist for the Obama administration, notes that much of the rise is due to simple demographics trends.

As they age, baby boomers are more likely to have disabilities than they did when they were young. That’s one reason for the rise. Another is the fact that more women have joined the workforce and can receive disability. As Berstein explains, about half of the increase in disability rolls since 1990 is due to these factors.

An additional item bringing more people onto disability rolls is the rising retirement age. In 1983, the Reagan-supported Greenspan Commission declared a phased-in rise in the eligibility age for Social Security from 65 to 67. Among the effects of this misguided policy was forcing older people who get too sick to work to apply for disability because they can’t yet receive Social Security. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “roughly 20-30 percent of Americans in their 60s have a health problem that limits their ability to work or to perform basic physical tasks."

Since the retirement age has been gradually rising since 1983, you thus get more people in their 60s applying for disability. Thanks, conservatives, for helping blow up those disability rolls!

So far, we’ve accounted for more than half of the rise Eberstadt is presumably talking about when he claims alarming increases in the disability rolls. What about the rest? That part of the story is not as easy to grasp, and there are disputes about what is causing it. A 2011 paper published in the American Economic Review by Columbia University economist Till von Wachter and two colleagues, “ Trends in Employment and Earnings of Allowed and Rejected Applicants to the Social Security Disability Insurance Program,” provides some insight.

The von Wachter paper indicates that in addition to the factors already discussed, like increased numbers of women in the workforce, there have been other changes that have increased the rolls of the Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) program since the 1980s. The first of these, according to the authors, is the increasingly crappy economic situation and job prospects for lower-skilled people which leads to “lower rates of participation in the labor force for less-educated men.” Also, the Social Security Disability Benefits Reform Act of 1984 provided for certain revisions, including a change in the standards for determining mental impairments and more emphasis on the combined effects of multiple ailments in the absence of one severe impairment. (This is why Eberstadt grouses about applicants citing things like back pain and depression.)