The Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) program faces important concerns about program growth and the future adequacy of the Social Security trust fund, which funds the program. Further, some observers note that many Americans with disabilities receive inadequate benefits. These 11 charts show the number and growth of disabled beneficiaries, distributions of age and incomes, where beneficiaries live across the country, and other characteristics of the program that may affect program finances.
The number of disabled workers as a share of all workers has more than tripled since 1970
DI provided benefits to nearly 9 million disabled workers in 2013, nearly six times the 1.5 million disabled workers who received benefits in 1970. As a share of the number of workers with taxable earnings, DI has grown from 1.6 percent in 1970 to nearly 5.5 percent in 2013. A number of factors have driven this growth, including the aging of the population, changing employment prospects for less-educated workers, and changes in federal policy over the past 30 years that has, among other things, changed program eligibility criteria and the Social Security full retirement age.
There have also been significant changes in the gender makeup of the disabled worker population. In 1970, less than 0.5 percent of all covered workers were women receiving disabled worker benefits, compared with 1.2 percent of men. By 2013, the difference between these two groups had nearly closed, with women accounting for 2.6 percent of all covered workers and men accounting for 2.8 percent. The increase in the share of women receiving disabled-worker benefits reflects that more women now qualify for benefits because of changes in their labor force participation, earnings, and other factors. These continuing changes may lead to changes in DI demographics—and system finances—in the future.
Source: Social Security Administration, Annual Statistical Supplement to the Social Security Bulletin, 2014 (Washington, DC: Social Security Administration, 2015), table 4.B1 and table 5.D3.
The incidence of worker DI beneficiaries has been flat since 1991
The “incidence” rate for DI is the number of people getting on the program each year per 1,000 people who are insured for the program but who are not currently receiving benefits. These rates can be further adjusted by the age and gender distribution of the population. Such adjustments allow us to look at the types of people who are eligible to receive benefits. (DI eligibility is determined by a combination of work history and medical impairments.) Since 1991 (when these data are first available), the age- and sex-adjusted incidence rate of DI has been more or less flat, overall ranging between about 4.7 and 6.4 per 1,000 disability insured, and varying with the economic business cycle.
DI worker beneficiaries skew toward older ages
The likelihood of receiving DI benefits increases with age because health problems generally intensify as people age. In 2013, just over 32 percent of all male DI worker beneficiaries were between age 60 and the full retirement age compared with about 24 percent ages 55 to 59, just over 17 percent ages 50 to 54, and 11 percent or less in each of the three younger groups shown here. The age distribution among women who qualify as DI workers is basically similar to the distribution of men, with a slight tilt toward younger ages. Overall, the average age of current DI workers is 53.5 years for men and 53.4 years for women in 2013.
More than half of women and about a third of men receive benefits that are less than $1,000 per month
The average monthly benefit for a worker receiving DI benefits was $1,146 in 2013; men received an average monthly benefit of $1,271 and women received $1,011 per month, a difference of about 25 percent. (Like all Social Security benefits, DI benefits are tied to a worker’s past earnings.) Those differences mask the variation in benefits that arise from beneficiaries’ diverse employment and earnings experiences. The full distribution of monthly DI benefits in 2013 reveals, for example, that more than half of women beneficiaries (about 57 percent; see the far-right vertical line) had benefits below $1,000 per month; over a quarter (about 27 percent; the left line) had benefits below $750 per month. By comparison, about 35 percent of men beneficiaries had monthly benefits below $1,000 and 14 percent had benefits below $750. As women’s rates of labor force participation and earnings approach those of men, women’s DI benefits should approach those of men.
DI beneficiaries are disproportionately low income
DI beneficiaries have much lower average per capita family incomes than nonbeneficiaries. Ranking the US population from lowest to highest incomes and dividing it into five equally sized groups—known as quintiles—shows how DI beneficiaries are disproportionately low income. In 2010, slightly less than half (47 percent) of DI beneficiaries ages 31 to 49 fell in the bottom quintile. A slightly smaller share (33 percent)—but still higher than the non-DI population—of older DI beneficiaries fell into the lowest quintile. At the other end of the distribution, DI beneficiaries are much less likely to be in the top quintile: only 4 percent of DI beneficiaries ages 31 to 49 and 7 percent of those ages 60 to 64 have incomes that put them into the top fifth of the distribution.
A higher proportion of people in southern states receive DI benefits than other parts of the country
The number of DI beneficiaries varies significantly across the United States. A number of factors drive this variation, including state-level demographics and labor markets, labor force participation, earnings, health, and job type. Southern states tend to have higher proportions of people receiving DI benefits as a share of the population ages 18–64 than other states. In 2014, the highest per capita rate of DI-benefit receipt was in West Virginia, where about 9 percent of residents received benefits. The four next-highest states are also in the South—Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi—each with roughly 8 percent of residents receiving benefits. By contrast, states with the lowest per capita DI-benefit receipt are Utah, Hawaii, and Alaska, in which roughly 3 percent of residents received benefits in 2014.
More than 60 percent of all DI worker beneficiaries report musculoskeletal and mental disorders
People may become eligible to receive disability benefits for different health-related reasons, ranging from mental disorders (such as autism or mood disorders) to musculoskeletal or connective tissue diseases (such as disorders of the spine) to cardiovascular diseases. Since 1996, a growing share of DI beneficiaries qualifies for benefits because of musculoskeletal or connective tissue diseases. In 1996, about 20 percent of beneficiaries had such diagnoses, but, by 2014, that proportion increased to about 31 percent. By comparison, the share of DI beneficiaries with circulatory diseases has declined, from about 12 percent in 1996 to 8 percent in 2014. The share of beneficiaries with mental disorders has remained relatively flat over the past 16 years, ranging between about 30 and 34 percent. The latest data show that 2014 is the first year in which a greater share of beneficiaries qualifies for musculoskeletal diseases (31.2 percent) than mental disorders (31.0 percent).
Impairment types of disabled workers vary across the country
Overall counts of per capita impairment types mask variation across different parts of the country. A variety of factors may contribute to patterns in types of disabilities in different parts of the country, including types of jobs people have, the age distribution, and different environmental factors that may affect people’s health.
Reflecting the overall pattern of the number of people receiving worker DI benefits per person, the highest density of many DI impairment types occurs in the South. For example, the states with the highest per capita rates of people with circulatory disease are Mississippi, Alabama, and West Virginia. Similarly, Alabama, West Virginia, and Kentucky have the highest rates of people with musculoskeletal or connective tissue disease. High densities of other impairments occur elsewhere in the country. Maine and New Hampshire, for example, have the highest per capita rates of mental illness in the country. West Virginia, likely reflecting the health impacts of the mining industry, has the higher per capita rates of injuries and respiratory system disease than other states.
Few people leave DI
Once on DI, few people actually leave the program. Since 2012, the DI “termination rate”—the number of people who are removed from DI per 1,000 existing beneficiaries—declined from about 174 in 1970 to 76 in 2003, where it remained relatively flat until the last few years where it has increased, reaching 87 in 2014. (Policy changes in 1980 and accelerated case reviews in 1982 and 1983 increased the number of terminations.)
People leave the program for a few reasons: they reach the full retirement age (66 for people born between 1943 and 1954, increasing gradually to 67 for those born 1960 and later) when their DI is replaced by Social Security retirement benefits; they die; or they no longer meet the necessary medical criteria, or for other reasons. In 2014, 780,000 disabled workers were removed from the DI program, more than half of whom (451,000) were terminated from the program because they aged into the Social Security retirement program. Another 253,000 people, or about a third of all DI terminations, died. Only about 69,000 people—or 9 percent of the total—were removed from the program because they no longer met the DI medical criteria, including 36,000 people who returned to work and earned more than the program’s limit ($1,090 in 2014).
The number of DI applications has varied over time and typically grows during periods of high unemployment
The number of people who apply for DI for each 1,000 workers with taxable earnings (the “application rate”) has followed the economy over the past few decades. This, however, was not true for much of the 1980s. When the unemployment rate rose between 1980 and 1982, the application rate declined. Then, when the unemployment rate started to decline after 1982, falling from 9.7 percent to 6.2 percent in 1987, the application rate stayed relatively flat at about 9.0. In the last few years of the 1980s, the application rate fell from 8.8 in 1987 to 7.9 in 1988 and then to 7.5 in 1989.
Since 1990, the two series have tended to move together: In the recession in the early 1990s, the unemployment rate rose almost 2 percentage points between 1990 and 1992 and application rate rose 25 percent over those same three years. During the rest of the 1990s, the application rate declined by one-fifth as the unemployment rate fell from 7.5 percent in 1992 to 4.2 percent in 1999. More dramatically, the application rate and the unemployment rate both surged simultaneously during the Great Recession in the late-2000s, the former increasing 5 percentage points between 2007 and 2010 and the latter increasing nearly 40 percent.