Is America a land of opportunity -- or disability?

More than 8.8 million US workers now collect the benefits, a sixfold jump since 1970 that cost the government $135 billion last year.

By Aimee Picchi Apr 12, 2013 7:20AM

Injured man on crutches (copyright image100, Corbis)While the economy shows signs of gaining strength, another segment of the U.S. is growing even faster: the number of workers going on disability insurance. 


More than 8.8 million disabled workers received payments from the government in January, a sixfold increase since 1970, when 1.5 million disabled workers received assistance, according to the Congressional Budget Office


That trend has picked up in recent years, with the disability rolls surging by 24% since 2007, when the recession began, according to data from the Social Security Administration and the CBO. 


That means 5% of the working-age population received disability in 2011, with 2012 outlays costing the government $135 billion. While it's unclear how that surge affects the country's biggest employers, such as Wal-Mart (WMT) and Kroger (KR), the trend means fewer adults in the workforce.


By comparison, disability payments outpace the government's ballooning spending on food stamps, which last year cost the U.S. $74.6 billion


So what's going on with American workers? As outlined in an excellent Planet Money piece that looked at Hale County, Ala., where nearly one in four working-age adults receives disability, Americans are suffering from sometimes "squishy" medical diagnoses.


That means while one person claiming to suffer from back pain might receive disability, especially if he's a manual laborer, an office worker may not, the piece charges. 


Of course, disability covers workers with a wide range of serious physical and mental problems, from autism to blindness. And the Social Security Administration, which doles out the payments, points to major demographic changes as the cause for the surge in disabled workers during the 1980s and 1990s.


For starters, more women, who started entering the workforce en masse several decades ago, now qualify for disability. On top of that, an aging population means more illness and injury, the CBO notes. 


Men now represent fewer than 53% of people receiving disability, while the average age of recipients was 53, according to the Social Security Administration.


"We're not just living longer, but we're living disabled longer as well," Disability Insurance Services president Daniel Steenerson told


Some are advocating for reforms, with Time's Joe Klein writing Tuesday that the "government has gotten sloppy about admissions."


Regardless of how you feel about the issue, one thing is certain: Some changes will be needed, given the CBO notes disability expenditures have exceeded dedicated revenue since 2009 and the benefit will exhaust its trust fund in 2016.


More on moneyNOW

Apr 12, 2013 12:15PM

It seems that laziness is now considered a disability.

Apr 12, 2013 10:43AM
Maybe it is the overwhelming shift to heavy, industry jobs over the last 40 years that is causing all the  disabilities?   Or maybe if the hundreds of billion spent on safety  regulations and OSHA inspections in the workplace?

We have had a 700% increase in 'disabled' Americans since 1968.   Maybe men (and women) are becoming excessively weak and medical treatments have gone backwards?  

Or maybe people are taking advantage of the democrat  nanny state, and have figured they don't need to work anymore and they will leech off those that continue to work?

Not sure  which answer it is, but I am sure the right one is listed above....
Apr 12, 2013 11:24AM
They should definitely make the requirements for it a lot more stringent so that the really hurt people who truly need assistance will be able to get it. Not people suffering from phantom pains, mental anguish and the like. These are reactions we all get on occasional Mondays. Just go to work and quit whining...
Apr 12, 2013 7:37AM
How to shrink the UE rate by 3 percentage points without creating any jobs:

1.  Take a few million older workers off the UE rolls, put them on SS and call them retired.
2.  Take a few million more workers off the UE rolls, put them on SSI and call them disabled.
3.  Take a few million more workers off the UE rolls, give them loans and grants and call them students.

Apr 12, 2013 11:29AM
I read a news story about a guy who was collecting social security disability plus private disability insurance from Liberty Mutual.  Unlike the US government, private disability rolls are not skyrocketing because non-goverment insurance providers will send investigators to video claimants.  This guy was was shown moving furninture off a truck and other stuff while supposedly being completely disabled.  Liberty Mutual ceased his disability payments but he continues to collect disability from Social Security (i.e. the taxpayer).
Apr 12, 2013 1:26PM
I work in medicine and the number of crap disability claims are outrageous.  The government needs to figure out that there are millions who illegally get payments that are not necessary.  Set up an agency to investigate these people and their quack doctors, create jobs and save millions at the same time.  Why can't they figure this out?
Apr 12, 2013 11:40AM
This is one subject that bothers me because of all the bogus people who r abusing this system thats set up for people who r unable to work.My brother in law who struggles with MS and still works. I have a  blood disease which i can collect if i wanted to get a case going.But i can still work even though its a struggle from time to time.Besides that Ilost my job in nov. after 25yrs.which my pension and benifits went with it.So now i am left with these issues so i choose to work and honestly provide for my family.So people like my brother inlaw can receive needed benefits.
Apr 12, 2013 9:53AM
"Squishy" medical diagnosis?  This is just another way to run a ponzi scheme.  Patient gives doc a few bucks and the doc gets the shyster on the government cheese. 
Apr 12, 2013 10:32AM
Our current system of governance is unsustainable, and therefore is going through it's own bubble.
Apr 12, 2013 1:44PM
I'm 70 and still working and paying SS. I have a person I know that collects SSDI. pays no taxes collects workmans comp from Calif. When confronted about the deal he told me he cant afford to go to work  by the time he buys gas and lunch and clothing he loses money. Pisses me off but some judge said he is disabled. Lets see he rides an ATV, rides a horse, hunts elk and deer every year, fishes in a river in waders but is too disabled to work. F***ed up system.
Apr 12, 2013 12:48PM
Proves how much cheating and corruption there is in the system. A bad economy does not make people disabled but it does make them crooks.
Apr 12, 2013 10:27AM
When government is looking for people to add to the  welfare rolls, it is not surprising that welfare rolls skyrocket. The increasing welfare rolls is NOT a big WOW!
Apr 12, 2013 9:50AM
I spoke to someone formerly in the navy who said that it was suggested by military for him to claim ringing of the ears after being exposed to gunfire, even though he didn't have ringing of the ears.  He would be able to claim 10% disability, and no one would be able to disprove his claim.

Why be dishonest for financial gain?
Apr 12, 2013 12:38PM
"squishy" is the same thing as LYING.  Can probably throw in lazy and TAKER along with it.
Apr 12, 2013 12:08PM
One subject not covered is once people qualify for disability, they and their family will qualify for Medicare. This is another reason for the increased Medicare payout.
Apr 12, 2013 12:41PM
Guy I know just got on 10% VA disability.  Claimed when he was in the military for his 1 yr tour of duty and he worked indoors at an airport that he got tinnitus from the noise.  He's 58 now and that was 38 years ago.  Scam.
Apr 12, 2013 12:43PM
Another guy I know is getting $35k a year in tax free disability from the govt.  Claimed "agent orange" gave him cancer.  He's in his mid sixties now.  Wonder if his smoking a pack a day and drinking booze the last 35 years had anything to do with his cancer, do you suppose?
Apr 12, 2013 12:16PM

This "squishy" situation is nothing but fraud, and what does this administration do about it? NOTHING.  In fact they have allowed and encouraged it.......Democrats forever!!


By the way, wonder what color those 1 in 4 fine folks are? It doesn't's still costing the honest people a ton.

Apr 12, 2013 9:53AM
 "squishy" medical diagnoses" ............  Oh lordy lordy...... my medical problem up and disappeared like a fart in the wind. Does this mean I have to give the money back?
Apr 12, 2013 1:41PM
About 12 years ago my father had a massive heart attack (at work!) and an immediate quintuple bypass. As a side effect of the surgery, two days later he had a stroke which paralyzed him 100% on the left side of his body. He had been a high school teacher, but was obviously unable to work after that. He was denied for SSI because his health was not "bad" enough to interfere with his employment....Later he reapplied and was approved, but unfortunately only lived a few months after that. Makes me sick when I see people just playing the system and there are others who really do need it but can't get it...
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