Holding Out or Opting Out? Deciding Between Retirement and Disability Applications in Recessions

Matthew S. Rutledge

WP#2012-26

Abstract

Workers over age 55 with chronic health conditions must choose between applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits or continuing to work until their Social Security retirement benefits become available.  Previous research has investigated the influence of macroeconomic conditions on disability application and, separately, on retirement claiming.  This project uses data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation Gold Standard File to determine whether there is a relationship between national and state unemployment rates and disability applications, taking into account the current or future receipt of Social Security retirement benefits.  First, reduced-form estimates indicate that retirement beneficiaries are more likely to apply for SSDI as unemployment increases – and, conversely, eligible individuals who have not yet claimed benefits are less likely to apply when unemployment rises.   But after accounting for unobserved characteristics associated with both the decision to apply for disability insurance and Social Security benefits, individuals are no more likely to apply for disability benefits when unemployment is high.  Second, we find that the probability of SSDI application among individuals age 55-61 is unrelated to macroeconomic conditions and unrelated to proximity to one’s 62nd birthday.  These results suggest that, unlike prime-age adults, the decision among older individuals to apply for disability is based primarily on health, and not financial incentives.