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Exploding disability: What to do about the ballooning of Social Security?

Posted Sept. 25, 2013, at 12:31 p.m.
In this Oct. 25, 2012 file photo, an American flag flutters in the wind next to signage for a United States Social Security Administration office in Burbank, Calif.
FRED PROUSER | REUTERS
In this Oct. 25, 2012 file photo, an American flag flutters in the wind next to signage for a United States Social Security Administration office in Burbank, Calif.

In the debate over entitlement reform, few subjects are more fiercely debated than the cause of the explosive recent growth of Social Security Disability Insurance.

Defenders of the program, which cost a record $135 billion in fiscal 2012, argue that the rolls are increasing mainly because of technical and demographic changes, such as later eligibility for ordinary Social Security benefits, the aging of the workforce and the rising percentage of women in the workforce.

Critics, including a significant number of academic economists, suggest that the program’s manipulable and inconsistently applied eligibility criteria have enabled millions of people who could work to sign up for benefits instead.

Now come two pieces of fresh evidence in support of the critics. In a recent paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, economists Mary C. Daly, Brian Lucking and Jonathan A. Schwabish set out to explain the growth in Social Security Disability Insurance cases from 2.3 percent of the working-age population to 4.7 percent between 1980 and 2011 — a rate of growth double that of the working-age population as a whole.

They found that technical and demographic factors such as those cited by defenders of Social Security Disability Insurance explained no more than 56 percent of the program’s growth, suggesting that a substantial portion — at least 44 percent — is because of the kind of structural defects and perverse incentives that critics have cited.

In other words, though Social Security Disability Insurance is still a key part of the social safety net, and though much of its recent growth was inevitable, there’s still plenty of room for reforms that would help stabilize the government’s long-term finances and increase labor-force participation.

The Washington Post (Sept. 22)

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