In 1968 there were 51 workers for every person on disability. Today there are 13 workers for every person on disablity. Even the most pollyanna would agree that medical advancements since 1968 have been significant. These medical advancements would argue for less people being on disability and unable to work. Workplace safety measures have been increased exponentially since 1968, so that also argues for less disabled workers. The good old ADA law forced all workplaces to become disabled friendly. That argues for less people on disability. The country has transitioned from a manufacturing society to a service society. Workers don’t work on dangerous assembly lines anymore. Robots do the dangerous stuff. This should have dramatically reduced worker injuries and disabilities.
All this is true. But there is one, more benign, factor the author misses that could also be contributing to the disability spike: Many genuinely disabled people with serious health problems now live much longer.HIV is a good example. Back in the days when HIV-positive status was essentially a death sentence, the life of an HIV-positive person was likely to be a succession of opportunistic infections as health gradually declined. As a result, many people who were HIV-positive were ultimately enrolled on disability. As time went on and treatments improved, many of these people faced a difficult dilemma: They were healthy enough to work, but their long-term outlook remained very uncertain and also the cost of treatment was extremely high. Out of the workforce for many years, it wasn’t practical to leave disability for a job that likely would not offer medical insurance and would in any case be insecure as recurring health problems could set in at any time.Obviously, HIV alone isn’t responsible for the disability spike, but what’s true of HIV is also true for other chronic illnesses. Anyone afflicted by such a disease who has been rejected by insurance companies could very well deem it preferable to live on disability, which offers Medicare after two years, rather than be shut out of the insurance market upon entering the workforce.One benefit of Obamacare would be making it easier for these people to get insurance on the exchanges and therefore make it practical to return to the workforce. And it’s a demonstration of why the pre-Obamacare status quo is nothing we should try to return to.That said, the skyrocketing disability rates are something to watch. It would be interesting to know more about localities where approval rates are unusually high; in some cases criminal investigations of doctors and others involved in a system rife with moral hazard just might be in order.[Wheelchair image courtesy of Shutterstock]