Millions Of Americans Don't Work Due To Disability, And The Number Is Growing

In the last 15 years the number of people in the U.S. receiving payments from the federal government for disability has nearly doubled. Why? Two experts have been trying to unravel the mystery.

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Now we begin a series of stories that will continue next week on the program, a story that's central to our economy but rarely discussed. It's about 14 million Americans who don't have jobs and who don't show up in any of the unemployment measures we use - 14 million Americans who are invisible to the American economy and essential to understanding it. Here's NPR's Chana Joffe-Walt with our Planet Money team.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: I didn't know about these 14 million people hidden in plain sight. It took a guy deeply obsessed with data, with numbers, to bring them to my attention.

MARK DUGGAN: Right, I love numbers. I mean, I wouldn't call myself like a Rain Man but kind of - like there's a little bit of that. Like, I love thinking about government policies, government programs, government revenues.

JOFFE-WALT: Mark Duggan first stumbled across these 14 million people years ago. Back then it wasn't 14 million yet. This was 1999. Mark is a public policy professor at the Wharton School. And there he was doing what he loves best: poring over thick, government statistical abstracts at breakfast. And if you recall, back in the '90s, things seemed pretty good.

DUGGAN: The economy was just seemed to be kind of on fire, it was doing so well. The unemployment declining and crime declining, welfare rolls declining, and just, it was a really amazing times in terms of the performance of the U.S. economy. And yet, there's this program that sort of just diverged from everything else.

JOFFE-WALT: The government program for disabled people. Technically, it's actually two programs for people so disabled they can't work. And the idea of these programs is if you can prove to the Social Security Administration that your disability prevents you from holding down a job, the government will pay you money every month. The average is about $1,000 a month and the government covers your health care.

And back in the '90s, the number of people on these programs were growing rapidly, much faster than the population as a whole.

DUGGAN: You know, several percent per year in terms of enrollment was just - it just was - why is that happening?

JOFFE-WALT: Why indeed? Not only was the economy on fire, but we'd passed the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, which bans discrimination against disabled people. So you'd think that would mean more disabled people working.

DAVID AUTER: Nevertheless, the disability rolls were growing.

JOFFE-WALT: That's David Auter. He's an economist at MIT. And Mark Duggan roped him into this mystery. Mark called David and just said: Have you seen this? I don't understand what is happening here. So, David started looking, too.

AUTER: And we could not find anything in the literature that suggested to us that the underlying health of the U.S. population was deteriorating.

JOFFE-WALT: People didn't seem to be getting sicker or less healthy?

AUTER: Did not seem to be getting sicker, and people can have, you know, powered wheelchairs, they can have assistive devices for working with their computers.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Again Mark Duggan.

DUGGAN: Work is somewhat less physically demanding than it used to be, and yet this program was growing rapidly. And so that was all the - that made it all the more mysterious. You know, my instinct then was that there is something really interesting going on here, and I'm just going to dig somewhat deeper.

JOFFE-WALT: Mark and David are still digging in to the disability numbers. And over the past six months, I, too, have become obsessed with these programs and what they can tell us about the U.S. economy, how we're doing. The number of workers on disability has been doubling every 15 years or so. It has now reached that 14 million number.

And some of that dramatic growth is because of the large baby boomer generation growing older and becoming disabled, but some of that growth is due to a changing jobs market. Workers finding it increasingly difficult to get a job are using the disability program as a sort of last resort.

Just consider this: Since the economy began its slow, slow recovery in late 2009, we've been averaging about 150,000 new jobs created per month. But in that same period, almost 250,000 people have been applying for disability every month.

DUGGAN: So that is substantially greater than the job creation that we currently have in the country. It's a huge change that we've witnessed.

JOFFE-WALT: It is a huge change, but it's one I don't really think we've witnessed or at least paid much attention to. So here on this show over the next week, I'd like to just pay attention to try to figure out why the numbers are growing so rapidly and what exactly life is like right now for these 14 million Americans hidden in plain sight. Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News.

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Correction March 28, 2013

The original headline on this story incorrectly implied that all Americans who receive disability benefits do not work. Fourteen million Americans are on disability, but a small portion does work.

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