Is Disability Contributing to Women's Declining Employment?

May 6, 2014

Record numbers of women are receiving Social Security disability benefits, according to a new report from Pamela Villarreal, senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

The labor force participation rate for women is the lowest in more than a decade, and it has dropped from its 1999 peak of 60 percent down to 57.2 percent in 2012. Could the rising number of women receiving disability benefits be responsible for the drop in female labor force participation?

It takes three years in the workforce to qualify for Social Security disability, so disability rates could be expected to rise as more women entered the workforce:

  • In 1970, women comprised about 28 percent of workers receiving Social Security disability benefits.
  • By 2000, when women's labor force participation started falling, the portion of women receiving disability had increased to 43 percent.
  • In 2012, 48 percent of the 8.8 million workers receiving benefits were women.

While men constitute a larger share of disability recipients, Villarreal found that a growing number of younger women are receiving disability awards. From 2000 to 2012, men outnumbered women in terms of benefits awarded to all age groups. However:

  • In six of the last 12 years, more women ages 35 to 39 were awarded benefits than men.
  • In eight of the last 12 years, more women ages 30 to 34 were awarded benefits than men.

The chances of disability recipients ever leaving the disability program and actually returning to full-time work is miniscule -- less than one percent. 

What is causing disability? The leading cause today, for men and women of all ages, is musculoskeletal disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome and fibromyalgia.

  • Of those awarded disability benefits, 13.2 percent of women and 11 percent of men were diagnosed with a musculoskeletal condition in 2000. In 2012, women under 35 still outpaced men in this category.
  • For disability recipients ages 35 to 49, one-fourth of the women were diagnosed with a musculoskeletal condition in 2000, compared to one-third of the men. However, the percentage of women with these disorders jumped to more than 30 percent by 2012.
  • The largest increase in awards was in the 50 and older age group. Nearly 34 percent of women were diagnosed with musculoskeletal disorders in 2000 compared to 29.9 percent of men. By 2012, the percentage of recipients of both sexes with these conditions had increased 10 percentage points.

Source: Pamela Villarreal, "Is Disability Contributing to Women's Declining Employment?" National Center for Policy Analysis, May 6, 2014. 

 

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