The Economist reports on the rising tide of Disability Insurance applications and how it interacts with the U.S. labor market.
In theory, disability and unemployment should not be correlated—and from 1966 to 1985 they were not, according to a new study prepared for the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity by Olivier Coibion and two others. But in 1984 DI eligibility criteria were eased so that applicants could qualify based on a combination of conditions rather than just one. Since then, highly subjective conditions such as back pain and mental illnesses have grown to account for most DI beneficiaries, and claims have become more correlated with unemployment . That strongly suggests that many workers find a way to qualify for DI when other benefits have been exhausted.
Between 2007 and 2012 the number of applicants for DI shot up from 11.2 per 1,000 working-age people to 14. Unpublished research by Mary Daly of the San Francisco Fed, Richard Burkhauser of Cornell University and Brian Lucking, a graduate student, estimates that this rise in applications equates to 2.6m people. Depending on how many of those applicants are eventually awarded benefits, this could explain between 31% and 59% of the decline in participation among 16-to-64-year-olds.
These results suggest that if it were not for people receiving disability insurance, reported unemployment would be far higher. Although DI recipients may initially have climbed because the economy was weak, their numbers will almost certainly not decline when it strengthens again; only 4% of beneficiaries return to work within ten years. The proportion of working-age adults on DI has risen from 1.3% in 1970 to 4.6% in 2013. The impact on participation rates may be cyclical at first and then become structural.
Check out the whole article here.