NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Change Needed -- Social Security Disability Insurance

September 6, 2013

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, ratified 23 years ago, is based on what was then a radical idea: that the physical and social environment people with disabilities face is as much responsible for their inability to fully integrate into society as their health-based impairments. But despite the improvements mandated by the ADA, the employment rate of working-age Americans with disabilities (aged 16-64) has less than impressive results, says Richard Burkhauser in Roll Call.

  • The employment rate of working-age Americans with disabilities hit an all-time low of 14.5 percent in March 2012 (latest number available).
  • It was 28.6 percent in March 1990.
  • In March 2007, just before the Great Recession, it was 18.7 percent.

Congress must recognize that this precipitous drop in employment is not the result of an increase in the severity of work limitations or of growing discrimination in our society. Rather, it is the unintended consequence of their failure to reform Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) -- a program that discourages Americans with disabilities from working.

  • SSDI reached an enrollment peak of 8.85 million in March 2013.
  • This represents a 21 percent increase since the start of the recession in 2007 and worsens a long-term SSDI growth trend.
  • Since the mid-1980s, the percentage of working-age adults enrolled in SSDI has doubled.

Instead of receiving accommodation and rehabilitation when it is most effective, immediately after becoming disabled and unable to work, these workers face a slow SSDI approval process that, with appeals, can take years to resolve. By then, the workers are so removed from work that reentering the workforce becomes an even more daunting task. While SSDI does provide a measure of economic security through income support and health coverage, it can't generate the social and mental health benefits strongly associated with employment. Those with impairments who continue to work tend to fare better from both a quality of life and financial perspective than those who must rely on SSDI.

SSDI provides a critical safety net for Americans whose impairments prevent them from working. But its incentive structure pushes away from employment many who could work. The failure to adjust this outmoded incentive structure to one more in keeping with ADA principles is now a major barrier to the employment of Americans with disabilities.

Source: Richard Burkhauser, "Congress Should Reform Social Security Disability Insurance," Roll Call, August 29, 2013.


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