NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

America's Hidden Welfare Program

September 17, 2010

Over the last few decades Social Security's disability insurance (SSDI), a program that was designed to help a relatively small group of people who were fatally sick or permanently unable to work, has evolved into a backdoor welfare program in which a huge number of people are paid not to get jobs.  How huge?  At $180 billion a year nationwide, we're talking about well over 4 percent of the adult population.  In some states -- Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi and West Virginia -- the rate exceeds 6 percent, says Slate Magazine.

Unlike unemployment insurance, SSDI benefits are open-ended.  Once you qualify for SSDI, you keep getting it until one of three things happens: you die, you reach retirement age or you stop being eligible (either by getting a job or by getting better).  That last criterion accounts for only about 12 percent of those who leave the program in any given year, says Slate.

  • In the early decades of the program, the largest categories of people that qualified for SSDI had life-threatening ailments, particularly heart disease and cancer.
  • Today, the single largest category is mental disorders (not including mental retardation).
  • The mental disorders category has skyrocketed:  In 1983, about 50,000 people were given SSDI awards for mental illness; in 2003, it was nearly 200,000 -- almost a fourfold increase in a generation.

Source: James Ledbetter, "America's Hidden Welfare Program," Slate Magazine, September 13, 2010.

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