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US Citizens on Disability Overtake Greek Population


The US disability program has come under scrutiny following some high-profile reports on large-scale abuses of the system. As Jim Quinn’s The Burning Platform reports (via Zerohedge) the number of people living on disability benefits in the United States is now greater than the total population of Greece. If the report is to be believed, the timing of this spike suggests something is amiss:

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]

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  • Anthony

    10,962,532 U.S. citizens on Disability! April, 2013 195th straight month American workers collecting Federal disability payments have increased; ratio of full time workers to disability-collecting workers has decreased. Public policy and National sustainability screams out for serious thought on causes and remedies….

    • Corlyss Drinkard

      Well, I think we can discount “serious thought.” I haven’t seen much of that since the G.H.W. Bush regime except on the John Batchelor Show and Book TV.

      • Anthony

        G.H.W.B. was a serious practitioner.

  • JT

    I recall Michael Barone has recently written about the growing disability payment situation. Personally I doubt it would be easy to prove much fraud with the program. The problem seems to be that the definition of what a disability is has become easier to claim, and be believed.

    “Men Find Careers in Collecting Disability”

  • Jim Luebke

    “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.”

    Practical to return to jobs? What jobs? ObamaCare means there aren’t jobs to return to — and disability payments mean there’s no reason to return to them.

    Post-ObamaCare is no better than pre-ObamaCare. For a whole lot of people it’s worse.

    That’s why it should be repealed.

  • Corlyss Drinkard

    The fact that disabled people live longer should not have any effect on the explosive growth of the disability rolls. There’s been some research that shows older workers who get laid off are using disability to get them to SS eligibility. That’s where the disappearing jobs’ market collides with a certain lack of dynamism in the modern American spirit to compound our government out-lays problem.

  • disqus_yCUU4eFdHc

    Generally not good but keep in mind that around 3.5 million veterans are on disability of some kind and that is likely to increase. 22 veterans commit suicide on any given day…

  • Lorenz Gude

    While I agree that the ACA looks worse and worse, to anyone familiar with a reasonably well run healthcare system the previous system is a train wreck of undiagnosed proportions too. As my perennial example – in Australia where the public and private systems are forced to compete with one another rather than collude to extract nearly a fifth of GDP from the collective hide, Australia does it for less than a tenth and gets better health outcomes too. Oh and we cover everybody too. I’m an American so I am not a gloating furriner, just an appalled old curmudgeon. It increasingly appears that the ACA is an incredibly badly written law, but the greater problem is that it builds on a system that costs twice as much as it should. It is not built on a foundation of sand – it is built squarely on top of a sinkhole. Economically speaking, of course.

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