“None of us should be surprised that the cost of the program was rising,” says Stephen Goss, Social Security’s chief actuary. He says the program’s growth is mostly a consequence of demographic change. Older workers are more likely to get sick, and as women have entered the workforce, they too have become eligible for benefits.On the map, black-shaded areas have the highest percentage of disability claims amongt people aged 18-64.
The geographic distribution of people on disability tells a different, but complementary, story: Workers who might have endured pain for a physical job apply for disability when jobs disappear. This has created what some economists call “disability belts”—rural areas in Appalachia, the Deep South, and along the Arkansas-Missouri border.
In Van Buren County, Ark., 11.3 percent of working-age adults get federal disability benefits, putting it in the top 5 percent nationally. It’s been a tough decade for the county. In 2006, Volex moved a plant that made electrical cable to Hermosillo, Mexico. Pilgrim’s closed its poultry processing plant in 2008, eliminating 300 jobs. That same year, a tornado destroyed Rivertrail Boat, which had employed 30 people. There’s a Walmart Supercenter on the state highway, but in Clinton, the county seat, about half the shops on Main Street are shuttered.The article goes on to illustrate with people from the area who could do some work, but aren't able to do the limited jobs that are available.
In the coming Congress, Republican Representative French Hill, who represents Van Buren County, plans to reintroduce a disability insurance reform bill he wrote after hearing Autor, the MIT economist, present his analysis of the program—a talk that echoed things Hill had heard from folks back home. The bill would require more frequent reviews of disability recipients with nonpermanent conditions. It would also allow recipients to keep some of the subsidy even after they’re employed rather than being cut off. “The cliff aspect of it is a frustrating flaw in many federal safety net programs,” Hill says. Asked whether he thinks lagging economic growth helps explain why so many of his constituents have turned to disability insurance, he answers, “Undeniably.” But, he adds, “that’s not a reason not to think critically about the program.”