Study: Record Number of Women Receiving Disability Payments
by Andrea Billups
May 29, 2014
A record number of women are receiving Social Security disability payments as females have steadily outpaced new male recipients since 2000, new research shows.
Women made up about 29 percent of all workers on disability in 1970. By 2000, that number had risen to 43 percent. In 2012, the last year for which government figures are available, the number was up to 48 percent, according to a report released this month by the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA).
"I don't know why more women are going on disability than men," said the report's author, Pamela Villarreal, a senior fellow at the NCPA, who notes a correlation with the falling labor force participation rate for women, which decreased from 60 percent in 1999 to 57.2 percent in 2012.
While the still-faltering economy may be to blame as more women have lost jobs, Villarreal said she is not convinced that it is the only factor that has led to the increase.
In six of the last 12 years, more younger women, those ages 36 to 39, were receiving disability than men in that demographic, while in eight of the last 12 years, women ages 30 to 34 outpaced men in disability awards.
Men still comprise a greater number of disability recipients than women overall, and the biggest increase for both men and women has been from applicants age 50 and over.
But Villarreal said the growth in the number of younger women receiving disability points to something more, marking short-lived careers with little impetus to return to employment.
Most who receive disability checks do not work, although the government allows recipients to earn some money. On average, a disability recipient who previously worked receives about $1,134 a month, according to the 2012 Social Security Disability Insurance report.
Villarreal said some women may be using disability as a "bridge to retirement."
"I wrote the study with that in mind," she told Newsmax. "There is very well a certain percentage of people who are probably giving up on finding jobs, or they have an ailment that puts them on temporary disability" and "once you get on it, it's hard to get off it."
She added that the monthly payment "is not something you get wealthy from, but it has increased from last year."
After someone has been on disability for two years, they qualify for Medicare, regardless of age, she pointed out. Many disabled beneficiaries also qualify for other programs, including state or city housing subsidies as well as Medicaid if a recipient can't afford supplemental insurance premiums.
In recent years, the government has changed its requirements for qualifying for disability, according to Carrie Lukas, managing director at the Independent Women's Forum.
"There has been a broadening of what constitutes disability. Now back problems, headaches and mood disorders are sufficient for disability claims," she said.
Villarreal disclosed that the No. 1 cause for disability for women who get benefits is musculoskeletal disorders, which could be, for example, rheumatoid arthritis, or something as simple as back pain, a vague diagnosis.
"We do know that women tend to be more prone to things like arthritis, but this does not really explain the fact that [while] we have treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, and a variety of pain medications for those disorders, nothing seems to be getting better," Villarreal said.
There could be some "malingering," meaning false claims for benefits, she said. Some of the uptick in women filing claims may be "people who just maybe feel the need to go on disability for economic hardship or just a slight ailment they might have."
The study found that for those under 35, about 13.2 percent of women on disability in 2012 and 11 percent of men received musculoskeletal diagnoses.
For those from 35 to 49, about 25 percent of women in 2000 were diagnosed with musculoskeletal issues, but by 2012, the figure for women had increased to more than 30 percent.
The No. 2 cause for disability among both men and women is mental disorders.
The NCPA study found that in 2000, mental disorders were the reason for 23.5 percent of all disability awards for both men and women.
In 2012, for women over 50, mental disorder diagnoses increased to 14.2 percent of disability awards, up from 11.6 percent in 2000. The numbers for men over 50 with mental disorders dropped by 3 percentage points, Villarreal said.
"For women, mood disorders are a larger share," Villarreal said. "Doctors must take into consideration depression, anxiety, bipolar tendencies. Mood disorders are very hard to measure."
Qualifying for disability varies from state to state and the process has a lot of inconsistencies, making it easy to get benefits in some places and difficult in others, Lukas said.
But "once you are on disability, you could be on it for life," she said. "You're more likely to retire into Social Security benefits than to leave because you get a job."
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) allows those with mental disorders to be treated "on par with physical illnesses" and those who are diagnosed can no longer be denied coverage by insurers, Villarreal observed in her study.
Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who led a Senate subcommittee that has investigated the nation's disability system, wrote a letter to the Social Security Inspector General earlier this year noting his concerns over record disability claims. The number of beneficiaries set a record in April at 10,996,447.
The increase in recipients comes as the entire disability program is in dire financial straits. The Social Security Administration predicted last year that the program's funds will be depleted by 2016.
The cost of the expanding disability program is close to $175 billion annually, and more shocking: One in 19 Americans have been approved for the benefits.
"As far as a taxpayer liability, this is one of the programs where we don't want there to be rampant fraud," Lukas said of the enormous cost and record expansion.
"The disability program is there for a reason," she said. "There are other programs to help the unemployed. We need to make sure it isn't being used as kind of a final employment rest stop."
Villarreal agrees that changes to the program are in order.
"There definitely needs to be some reforms, and probably a self-funded program where you can set aside money for disabilities and have a public/private account," she said. "If people have skin in the game, they are more likely to want to get off and to get better."