Too-sick-to-work Americans reduce labor force

Posted May 07, 2012, at 8:24 a.m.
Last modified May 07, 2012, at 9:03 a.m.

Michael White says he wishes he still could pluck the bass line to Hank Williams Jr.’s “Born to Boogie” and pay bills with money he earns himself. High unemployment — along with ailments that he says render his fingers inoperative and make him cough up blood — have dashed his hopes.

White is among the 1.6 million Americans who have claimed Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, since the 18- month recession began in 2007. When the slump reduced demand for tow-truck drivers, White, 60, who has also worked as a musician, lost the job he’d held for five years and started collecting unemployment benefits.

Complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, diabetes and other medical problems then made it impossible for him to return to a labor market that lacks opportunities for people with health problems and those in better shape.

“I can’t stress enough that I’d rather be working, but my health has gotten the worst of me, and any place I would have applied wouldn’t have hired me,” said White, of Fort Myers, Fla.

The number of workers receiving SSDI jumped 22 percent to 8.7 million in April from 7.1 million in December 2007, Social Security data show.

In Maine in 2010, the percent of SSDI beneficiaries aged 18-64 as a percent of the overall population was 7.1 percent, according to the latest numbers from statehealthfacts.org.

That nationwide growth in SSDI participation helps explain as much as one quarter of the decline in the U.S. labor-force participation rate during the period, according to economists at JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley.

The participation rate — the share of working-age people holding a job or seeking one — was 63.8 percent in March after falling to a three-decade low of 63.7 percent in January. Disability recipients may account for as much as 0.5 percentage point of the more than 2 point drop since the end of 2007, the economists calculate, and that contribution could grow when some extended unemployment benefits expire at the end of this year.

“How we measure and understand what’s going on in the economy can be influenced by the degree to which various public- support programs are available and being used,” said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at JPMorgan in New York. “With a rising number of disability beneficiaries, there are both lower unemployment rates and lower participation rates.”

The White House argued in December that emergency unemployment insurance should be continued, partly because some recipients probably would apply for SSDI as their benefits neared exhaustion. Congress extended the payments in February.

“Workers on SSDI rarely return to the labor force, resulting in a loss to society of the economic contribution those workers could have made,” said the report, which was written by the National Economic Council, Domestic Policy Council, Labor Department and President’s Council of Economic Advisers. “Thus, keeping the long-term unemployed in the labor force should be a priority.”

More than 99 percent of all SSDI beneficiaries remain in the program until retirement age, David Greenlaw, a managing director in New York at Morgan Stanley, wrote in a March research note, citing government data. The program provides an average of $1,111 in monthly income to eligible workers with a physical or mental impairment that will last at least 12 months or result in death, according to Social Security.

The number of people collecting disability surged as the economy contracted, with the share of the U.S. population between the ages of 25 and 64 on SSDI climbing to a record-high 5.3 percent in March from 4.5 percent in 2007. Applications per 1,000 working-age people rose to 18 last year from 8 in 1990.

The gain follows a pattern typical of recessions because Social Security requires that claimants be unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity,” a stipulation more easily satisfied when jobs are scarce and wages get cut, according to Virginia Reno, vice-president for income security policy at the National Academy of Social Insurance in Washington.

“Impediments to work are compounded for people with disabilities when the economy turns sour and there are simply fewer jobs and greater competition for the jobs that remain,” Reno said. Her group researches the impact of social insurance on economic security.

Unemployment among the disabled rose by 7.6 percentage points to 16.9 percent — in August 2009 and June 2011 — from 9.3 percent in June 2008, when the government began tracking the data. The comparable measure for healthy people climbed 4.8 points to a peak of 10.4 percent in January 2010.

White’s weekly income fell to about $800 as the recession struck, even though he often worked every day, from as much as $2,000 when the towing business was booming, he says. As towing jobs contracted nationally to 48,300 in 2010 from a peak of 52,800 in 2008, he was laid off and filed for unemployment insurance in September 2009, receiving about $1,200 a month.

Meanwhile, White says, his health deteriorated: His COPD morphed into emphysema, he was diagnosed with diabetes, his fingers began to ache from neuropathy and he obtained a breathing device to combat sleep apnea. The former bass player for cover band Boston Post Road no longer could hold his guitar.

White says he routinely searched for eight to 10 jobs a week, more than required to keep his unemployment benefits, and would have taken any available position so long as his health permitted. No opportunities came up in the tight labor market, and anticipating his unemployment would run out, he applied for SSDI. He says he was approved in about five months.

The decision to go on disability can be difficult for people who’ve lost their job and then realize their health prevents them from working, said Sean Libby, vice president of corporate development at Freedom Disability, the advocacy company that helped White obtain SSDI. Unemployment insurance requires that applicants search for job opportunities, while disability insurance requires they be unable to work.

“You’re trying to make something gray into something black and white by saying, ‘On this date I woke up and I could no longer work,’ ” Libby said.

That gray area may be working to the advantage of some unemployed, according to economists David Autor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and Mark Duggan at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in Philadelphia. Because SSDI awards have soared even as the health of Americans has improved, SSDI “appears in practice to function like a nonemployability insurance program for a subset of beneficiaries,” they wrote in a 2006 research paper.

Less-stringent screening procedures, more attractive benefits and a waning need for less-skilled workers have bolstered SSDI rolls, they said. In addition, “difficult-to- verify disorders,” including muscle pain and mental illness, more easily qualify for SSDI under program reforms, Autor wrote in a 2011 paper.

Kia Green, a Social Security spokeswoman, did not respond to a request for comment.

Based on current trends, 7 percent of the nonelderly adult population could be receiving disability benefits by 2018, Richard Burkhauser and Mary Daly wrote in the spring issue of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. That’s two years after the SSDI program will run through its trust fund, according to an April report by the Social Security trustees.

Costs have increased with the rolls: The program spent $132 billion last year, more than twice as much as in 2000. Once the trust fund dries up, the program’s incoming revenue will be enough to cover only about 80 percent of scheduled benefits, the trustees said.

To help reduce the strain on the system and make it possible for more disabled people to remain in the labor force, Burkhauser, a policy professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and Daly, associate research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, argued SSDI should be modified. They said raising taxes on businesses with a larger share of employees on SSDI would provide an incentive for these companies to offer the employees better accommodations and rehabilitation programs that prolong their ability to work.

The current program, which assumes that disability and employment are “mutually exclusive” is “both archaic and fiscally unsustainable,” they said. “Fundamental reforms, if done well, can lower projected long-term costs for taxpayers, make the evaluative tasks of disability administrators less difficult and, importantly, improve the short- and long-run opportunities of people with disabilities.”

— With assistance from Brian Faler in Washington.

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