Social Security Disability Insurance's effect on labor force participation

The labor force participation rate for the prime working-age population — those between 25 and 54 years old — has been declining in the U.S. since 1997. One of the big reasons is a rise in the disability rate, which hit a record 5.2 percent in 2013. Since the start of the Great Recession, the withdrawal rate due to disability has accelerated. In fact, 90 percent of the labor force decline for those who were in their prime working ages for the entire six-year span was from disability. Most of this — three quarters — was from those receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.

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In 2007, 83 percent of the prime working-age population was in the labor force and accounted for over two-thirds of our total labor force. Today, after six years of recession and weak recovery, labor force participation by this group has plummeted. Nearly five million out of the 125 million of them dropped out of the labor force. But why? How much of this is due to retirement? What else contributed to this decline?

For those who aged out of their prime working years — those now between 55 and 60 years old — about 2.4 million dropped out of the labor force. As you might expect, most (about 70 percent) moved into retirement. The rest exited the labor force due to disability. An underappreciated aspect of baby boomer retirements is the fact that they have not reduced their participation as much as prior generations. In fact, for those aged 55 and above, the participation rate was below 30 percent just 20 years ago — yet for the past five years, it has been higher than 40 percent.

For those who remain in their prime working years — now between 31 and 54 years old — the story is different. As with the older workers, the decline in participation has been significant — over 2.5 million have dropped out of the labor force. But while some moved into retirement, a shocking nine out of 10 individuals of the younger group report that they exited the labor force due to a disability.

In fact, overall the number of Americans removed from the labor force because of a reported disability is at a record 14 million — up from about 11 million just six years ago. What appears to have enabled so many of the prime working age population to exit the labor force has been a single program: SSDI. For those who were in their working prime in 2007 and remain there today, there was a 1.7 million increase in those taking SSDI. This one program alone accounts for three-quarters of the disability exits and therefore, for most of the decline in labor force participation by the prime working-age population.

The SSDI program is the largest federal insurance program for lost income from a disability. To qualify, someone must have a minimum work history and a physical or mental condition that prevents them from engaging in any "substantial gainful activity" for at least 12 months. Use of the program has grown significantly — generally over 4 percent per year. Although it was never meant to be an unemployment insurance program, both the applications and acceptances into the program follow the unemployment rate.

Many have expressed concerns over the sustainability of the growth in spending on SSDI, and the Social Security Administration projects the program to be insolvent in just two years. One aspect of this is concern over whether the incentives of the program are encouraging people with disabilities to substitute SSDI benefits for labor market participation. If this is happening, more may be at stake than viability of the program. It may be undermining one of the important purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act that tries to make sure people with disabilities access the same employment opportunities and benefits as everyone else.

Hall is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and formerly the 13th commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.