Crack-era Incarcerations Added to the Disability Rolls

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Some 300,000 men in their 50s and early 60s were receiving federal disability benefits in 2016 as a direct result of a past surge in incarceration, according to new research.

The number of American men in federal or state prisons peaked at 1.5 million in 2010. That surge, which continues to affect the disability program today, was rooted in the crack epidemic of the 1980s that entangled many baby boomers and in the three-strikes laws in the 1990s that put more men in prison for drug offenses.

The increase in the prison population and its subsequent fall roughly follows the rise and fall in the number of men on the disability rolls. A new study confirms a link between men’s past incarceration and resulting employment problems and the upward march of the disability rolls before and during the Great Recession years. 

Many of the aging boomers who wound up on disability may have developed their impairments in prison and had difficulty finding or maintaining a job after their release.

Syracuse University economist Gary Engelhardt found very large increases in the likelihoods that the older men applied for and received monthly disability benefits, as well as the cash assistance provided under the Supplemental Security Income program.

The early surge in incarceration also significantly increased the men’s poverty rate, resulting in an additional 375,000 men ages 50 to 61 being impoverished in 2016.

The analysis was based on two different surveys that included questions about whether the participants had spent time in prison. Crack first entered the country through Florida, California and New York in 1981. After identifying the incarcerated people in the surveys, Engelhardt used the spread of the drug to 36 states, which occurred at various times, to distinguish how much of the rise in disability benefits among their residents resulted from the crack epidemic rather than from the aging population or economic conditions that also affect benefits.

Paradoxically, the formerly incarcerated were more likely to get disability benefits even though this group was less likely to meet the U.S. Social Security Administration’s required years of employment. The requirements vary by age. Someone who currently earns at least $6,920 annually receives the maximum four credits per year. Baby boomers need more credits than young adults, which is more difficult to achieve if someone has spent years or decades in prison.

Despite the difficulty of meeting the standard, the big jump in the probability of applying among those who would qualify resulted in the 300,000 additional beneficiaries in 2016.

After the Great Recession, the disability rolls dropped sharply. But the past surge in incarceration has affected the strength of that post-recession trend. The recent decline in people receiving disability “was partially blunted,” Engelhardt said, by the increasing number of aging men being released from prison and re-entering the civilian population.

To read this study by Gary Engelhardt, see “The Impact of Past Incarceration on Later-Life DI and SSI Receipt.”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.


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