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Washington Post blames the economy for disability roll bloat

An idle paper mill in Millinocket, Maine. Associated Press/Photo by Robert F. Bukaty, File

<em>Washington Post</em> blames the economy for disability roll bloat

Millinocket, Maine, used to be the paper capital of the world. The towering mills on the Penobscot River were the epitome of a small-town economy bursting with opportunity for people of all education levels.

But bankruptcies and a new economic climate destroyed 90 percent of those jobs. And as The Washington Post detailed Friday, many of those workers are now on Social Security Disability Insurance.

“Blame the economy,” the Post said, for the 13-year, 3.8 million increase in SSDI rolls, to 8.9 million. Because more women are working and the population as a whole is aging, SSDI was bound to grow—but not like this. The program’s trust fund is set to run out in less than three years, 20 years before its well-known relative for old-age benefits.

Nationally, the steady rise may seem unrelated to the economic downturn. But applications, on the other hand, spiked nearly 40 percent between 2006 and 2010. It’s overloading the system, creating years-long backlogs. And economic hardship seems to be a major factor.

Cars pack Main Street in impoverished Hale County, Ala., the day disability checks come in the mail. One in 4 of the town’s working-age adults are on disability rolls, NPR found. In Millinocket, nearly 1 in 12 working-age adults now get SSDI, as an “unusually large share of the unemployed are seeking economic shelter on federal disability rolls.”

Since 1961, applicants for subjective musculoskeletal and mental disabilities, like back pain and depression, rose from 18 percent to more than half of all cases, according to NPR. All that time, work was becoming less physically demanding and disability percentages for cancer remained virtually unchanged. A high school dropout in his 50s is 5 times more likely to be on disability than his degree-holding peers.

The financial strain of rising percentages of working-age adults on disability is now overwhelming. If the trust fund runs out, only payroll taxes coming in will go out, cutting assistance for the disabled by 20 percent. Even enforcing current rules can amount to a spending cut: The Government Accountability Office found $1.3 billion in potential fraud. But so far, doing anything about it has been taboo.

That’s why this is a notable appearance in the traditionally liberal Post, especially when activists and late-night comics alike still claim that to question a government assistance program is to target the disadvantaged, poor, and disabled. But disability wasn’t supposed to be the welfare program the Post admits it’s become. Perhaps that admission will pave the way for substantive change.

For more on SSDI, see WORLD’s previous reporting.

Andrew Branch Andrew is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.

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