s.e. emailed me an alert to this Atlantic post by Derek Thompson about the potential hidden costs of failing to extend unemployment insurance benefits, with a warning that I would likely ‘enjoy’ it. So I clicked through with trepidation. Rightfully so. I’ll excerpt the relevant piece here so you don’t need to reward this nonsense with pageviews (and if you do, avoid the comments, which are full of “unemployed people are fundamentally lazy” tripe):
Consider this statistic, from Peter Orszag at an event in DC called The Future of American Jobs Part II: The number of applications for the Social Security Disability Insurance has increased from an average of 500,000 per quarter in 2006 to 750,000 in 2010. Why? Well, it’s unlikely that American disabilities themselves have increased by 50 percent in the last four years. It is more likely that healthy Americans discouraged from the awful job market have sought out disability insurance and collected Social Security money even though they’re not actually disabled.
SSDI requires that its recipients be unable to work. Unemployment insurance, on the other hand, requires that its recipients look for work. Like any government program, UI can be gamed, and sometimes it surely is. But the fundamental point holds: If we stop supporting unemployed people with cash, there is a risk that we kick them out of the labor force onto disability insurance, where we pick up the tab by paying for them through SSDI not to work and not to look for work.
WHERE TO EVEN BEGIN, amirite? Let’s start with identifying the huge, glaring factual error in the argument – the assumption that all SSDI requires for eligibility is “that its recipients be unable to work.” You may not be surprised to learn that the long term disability insurance program through the federal government actually requires that the individual’s inability to work be due to a disability, rather than due to a lack of jobs at their skill level, or a lack of jobs that pay living wages, or any number of other reasons that a person would be unable to work. Yes, this disability benefits program actually has requirements about having a disability! And the Social Security Administration requires quite a lot of verification from medical professionals (who it considers more objective and reliable than people themselves) that it independently reviews and assesses before determining whether a person has a disability that qualifies them for SSDI. You cannot just walk into a Social Security office and demand SSDI benefits, no matter how long you’ve been out of work.
Now let’s look at the statistic he is using to lend legitimacy to his argument: “The number of applications for the Social Security Disability Insurance has increased from an average of 500,000 per quarter in 2006 to 750,000 in 2010.” What does this statistic tell us? It does not tell us anything about the trends, if any, of people receiving SSDI – just the number applying for it. Granted there is some cost to Social Security to review and assess these applications, but the main cost Thompson is raising is the amount of money spent on SSDI benefits – about which this statistic tells us absolutely nothing. Even the knowledge that there are 250,000 more SSDI applications per quarter this year than in 2006 tells us nothing about whether the application (or approval) rates are anywhere near the actual underlying prevalence rates. Even if disability rates have remained perfectly stable, we have no idea whether the 500,000 applications per quarter in 2006 was undercapturing the number of people who were actually eligible for SSDI.
(This built-in, unstated assumption that the starting point in increasing disability benefit rates was the “correct” or desired rate and that any increases are dirty lying cheating fraudulent people is extremely common. You see it in discussions about changes in special education enrollment, rates at which students are identified with learning disabilities, and more. And the assumption that the lower rate correctly reflects the actual prevalence in the population is so ingrained that people, including Thompson, do not even state that they are making such an assumption. It should be obvious to the reader, they imagine, that lower disability benefit rates are right!)
But Thompsons’ main point – that people currently in the workforce may shift to disability benefits if they are unable to find work – gets to the conflation of “disabled” and “unemployable” that I’ve discussed before. There are certainly people who would meet the criteria for SSDI who are employed right now, influenced by any number of factors including the stigma against not working, the difficulty of verifying eligibility for SSDI, and the likely higher income available through work. Unemployment may motivate those people towards SSDI, but so could a bunch of other things, like failure to provide reasonable accommodations at work and employment discrimination against people with disabilities. But a whole lot of people who are unemployed are simply ineligible for SSDI, because they’re unemployed for economic reasons and do not have a disability that would qualify them for SSDI.
A potential takeaway from this kind of thinking is that for reasons including saving money on disability benefits, we should mitigate and eliminate barriers to employment for people with disabilities. But this post concludes that because everyone on unemployment could pull down the higher SSDI benefits if they got the notion, we should support the unemployed. That’s not relevant either to people with disabilities or without them and is fundamentally nonsense.