Why the Mix of Disabilities is Changing

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The mix of disabilities for people receiving federal disability insurance has changed in important ways that often reflect trends in the health of the population as a whole.

Two disabling conditions that have become a growing share of Social Security’s benefit awards in recent decades are mood disorders and various musculoskeletal problems, which include arthritis and back pain.

First, consider mood disorders. They range from depression and bipolar disorder to irritability and seasonal affective disorder, and they can hamper someone’s ability to work. Mirroring the rising share of awards for mood disorders, their prevalence in the population has edged up from 54.6 percent of adults in 1997 to 56.2 percent in 2017, according to a study by Mathematica, a research organization.

Second, disability awards to people with musculoskeletal problems like arthritis and back pain have increased dramatically. These conditions are often aggravated by carrying excess weight, so the rise in cases aligns with the researchers’ estimate that the adult obesity rate has surged from about 20 percent to 31 percent. 

But a related finding about musculoskeletal conditions is more difficult to explain. Despite the growth in disability awards involving these conditions, the share of the population afflicted by them – about a third – hasn’t changed much, according to the study, which was conducted for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

The researchers found one clue to this apparent contradiction in a separate analysis indicating that this population’s ability to work may be deteriorating over time.

People with musculoskeletal conditions were becoming more socially isolated, causing a decline in their cognitive capacity. This is known to worsen health and may be compounding the effects of their disabling condition.

Overall, the researchers conclude, changing U.S. health trends “are consistent with some but not all of the changes” in federal disability cases.

To read this study, authored by Anna Hill and Purvi Sevak, see “Trends in Medical Conditions and Functioning in the U.S. Population.”

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.

Kenneth Wegner

I began working with SS disability claims in 1957. The original law required a permanent disability preventing any type of employment. The feds hired a bunch of administrative law judges who would grant an appeal if you couldn’t go back to the same job or if the labor market was poor. None of which was in the original law. That’s why you see a discrepancy between actual disability rates and claim grants.

Kenneth Wegner

A year or so after the SS Disability Act was passed, I was hired as a rehabilitation counselor and office manager for the state in a large midwestern city. I found a file cabinet of over 500 referrals whose claims had been rejected for not meeting severity of disability standards. I contacted all of them and none replied. “If you fund a program, they will come.” Our local paper police log is half full of identity theft scams for false unemployment claims. I do support a lower eligibility age for manual laborers. If first responders can retire at age 55, they should be able to also. Just a postscript to my previous comments.

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