Silhouettes of people

2020 Disability Blogs Tackle Myriad Issues

Squared Away has featured numerous articles this year – the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act – about the challenges that people with disabilities must deal with.

One in four adults in this country has some type of disability. What becomes clear when looking back at this collection of articles is the importance of ensuring that those who are capable of working get the support they need to overcome their unique challenges.

Employment rates, which are lower for people with disabilities, can be improved greatly if they receive support. One recent blog examined a program to assist people with severe intellectual or learning disabilities. The federal-state Vocational Rehabilitation program supplies coaches who help their clients find appropriate work and then smooth the bumps in the employer-employee relationship.

Another program that provides day care to children with disabilities has been effective in keeping their mothers – often single, low-income workers – in the labor force.

The logistical barriers to working are inherently higher for people with disabilities. Yet they are more likely than others to hold low-paying jobs with just-in-time scheduling or shifts that aren’t the same from week to week, according to research covered in an August blog. Imagine arranging special transportation or child care to accommodate these unpredictable schedules.

Economic factors also affect whether people find work or wind up on Social Security disability insurance. Amid the COVID-19 recession, researchers are concerned about the long-term impact of workers with disabilities losing their jobs. During the Great Recession, applications for Social Security disability benefits surged. Once people apply for disability benefits, the odds of ever going back to work decline.

Recessions are also an obstacle for people from low-income families trying to move up the economic ladder. Yet a researcher found that if they can manage to earn more than their parents, they will have more success staying off the disability rolls. One big reason: workers with good jobs and higher incomes are healthier because they can afford better medical care.

Our disability blogs cover research being funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration, which also supports this blog. Here is the complete list of the 2020 headlines:

Work:

Same Disability: Some Have Tougher Jobs

Same Arthritis but Some Feel More Pain

Disabilities and the Toll of Irregular Hours


Economy:
Learn More

Depressed woman

Why the Mix of Disabilities is Changing

The mix of disabilities for people receiving federal disability insurance has changed in important ways that often reflect trends in the health of the population as a whole.

Two disabling conditions that have become a growing share of Social Security’s benefit awards in recent decades are mood disorders and various musculoskeletal problems, which include arthritis and back pain.

First, consider mood disorders. They range from depression and bipolar disorder to irritability and seasonal affective disorder, and they can hamper someone’s ability to work. Mirroring the rising share of awards for mood disorders, their prevalence in the population has edged up from 54.6 percent of adults in 1997 to 56.2 percent in 2017, according to a study by Mathematica, a research organization.

Second, disability awards to people with musculoskeletal problems like arthritis and back pain have increased dramatically. These conditions are often aggravated by carrying excess weight, so the rise in cases aligns with the researchers’ estimate that the adult obesity rate has surged from about 20 percent to 31 percent. 

But a related finding about musculoskeletal conditions is more difficult to explain. Despite the growth in disability awards involving these conditions, the share of the population afflicted by them – about a third – hasn’t changed much, according to the study, which was conducted for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

The researchers found one clue to this apparent contradiction in a separate analysis indicating that this population’s ability to work may be deteriorating over time. …Learn More

Man running up the stairs

Economic Opportunity Reduces Disability

Add upward mobility – an individual’s success in surpassing parents’ economic circumstances – to the factors that can keep federal disability payments in check.

A substantial body of academic research has already established that when the economy is growing, unemployed and marginally employed people have better luck on the job market, and their applications for disability insurance start to decline.

But booms and busts aren’t the only influence on disability. A new study finds that economic conditions of a different type – the ability of low-income people to move up the economic ladder – can reduce disability by improving their health. People who earn more money tend to be healthier for a variety of reasons, ranging from access to better medical care to the lower rates of depression and obesity that exist in higher-income populations.

In a recent study, Yale University sociologist Rourke O’Brien used the data from another researcher’s study that mined IRS tax records to find people born in the 1980s to parents whose incomes were at the lower end – the 25th percentile – of the U.S. income distribution. The children were followed into adulthood to see if they earn more or less than their parents did.

It’s very difficult for children in low-income families to improve on their parent’s circumstances, but the odds are better if they grow up in areas with better schools, less inequality, and more two-parent families.

O’Brien’s research found that counties in which young adults earn more, on average, than their parents were less likely to one day report having a disability in U.S. Census surveys and less likely to be receiving disability benefits.

In a more in-depth analysis, the researcher found some evidence that upward mobility also blunts the well-known tendency of rising unemployment to increase disability applications.

Taken together, the findings indicate that whether someone ends up on disability benefits depends, at least in part, on where they grew up. …Learn More

Despair Grips Lower-Paid White Workers

Book Cover of Deaths of DespairLong before COVID-19 upended our world, the lives of lower-paid, less-educated workers had already been coming apart.

“It’s the other epidemic, but it’s an epidemic that’s been occurring under the radar for a long time,” Anne Case said in her keynote address for the annual meeting of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium, which was held online early this month.

Case, a Princeton University economist, was referring to the findings from her seminal work on the deterioration in financial well-being and rising death rates among white, non-Hispanics without a bachelor’s degree. Case, along with her husband, Angus Deaton, also at Princeton, have just published a book on their research, “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism.”

The deaths of despair they refer to are due to drug addiction, liver disease from alcoholism, and suicide. In writing this book, they are shining a spotlight on a phenomenon affecting people who no longer have a voice, in part because labor unions, once powerful advocates, have declined.

In 2018, some 158,000 white adults of all ages without a college degree died from addiction, alcoholism and suicide, according to Case and Deaton’s research – more than double the number in 1992 and on par with COVID-19 deaths to date.

But the death rate is just the tip of an iceberg of woe that includes an increase in physical pain, declining mental health, and a loss of a sense of self, Case said.

One disturbing trend is the relatively recent phenomenon of rising suicides among white women without a bachelor’s degree. Although suicides among their male counterparts are still much higher, women’s suicides in recent years have been increasing at roughly the same pace.

What is at the root of this despair? Case provides economic explanations, including a long-term decline in men’s wages and in the percentage who are employed. However, economics is inadequate to explain the despair. …Learn More

Grocery Store worker

Disabilities and the Toll of Irregular Hours

Irregular hours, last-minute schedule changes, and rotating shifts are now a fixture of the work world.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Gig economy workers often tout the appeal of having the freedom to set a schedule that suits their lifestyle. In reality, many workers with unpredictable schedules, notably in retail and in lower-paid and part-time jobs, do not determine when they work. Their schedules are set by their employers.

These jobs can be hard for anyone to juggle. Arranging childcare on an irregular schedule is a good example. But workers with disabilities face unique challenges, because they often need special arrangements, such as a caretaker to help them get ready for work or an accessible van to transport them.

This would suggest that it’s important to work for employers who give them predictable schedules. In fact, a new study of workers in their 20s and early 30s with disabilities found they more often have irregular schedules than the young adults who do not have disabilities.

Here are some of their specific findings. A larger share of the workers with disabilities told the U.S. Census their work hours varied, and their hours swung more widely from week to week than people without disabilities. Consistent with this, young adult workers with disabilities reported in a second survey – the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth – that they are less likely to have regular schedules.

They are also more likely to have jobs with rotating shifts – an employer might assign the 5 a.m.-1 p.m. shift one day and the 1 p.m.-9 p.m. shift the next. Further, rotating shifts have become more common in recent decades, the researchers found. …Learn More

Drawing of Arthritis

Same Arthritis. But Some Feel More Pain

The X-rays look very similar for two 60-year-old women with arthritic knees.

But the less-educated woman has more severe pain than the person who graduated college.

A new study of men and women finds that the degree of knee-joint deterioration visible in an X-ray isn’t the primary reason one person experiences more knee pain than someone else. Instead, the overwhelming reason is knee strain caused by obesity and the toll taken by physically demanding jobs – both of which are more common among less-educated workers.

The researchers focused on knee arthritis, because musculoskeletal pain is one of the leading causes of Social Security benefit payments to people who develop a disability and can no longer work.

Understanding what’s behind the pain differences is important, because the need for workers in certain jobs requiring physical strength – home health aides, janitors, and construction workers are examples – is expected to increase in the future.

Given this growing demand and predictions of a continued rise in obesity, the researchers conclude that “pain is expected to contribute to an increase” over time in the percentage of the population who will be impaired by their pain.

The people in the study fell into three educational groups: a high school degree or less; some college; or a four-year college degree. The researchers also had information about their occupations, as well as several data sources that gauge the severity of their knee pain, including the ability to do things like walking a quarter of a mile.

Knee arthritis worsens with age. However, a surge in reports of severe knee pain came about a decade earlier for people with no more than a high school degree than the surge for college graduates. …Learn More

Retirement Research Presented Virtually

A video call

Like much in life under a pandemic, the research presentations for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium’s annual meeting are going virtual.

This year’s online meeting will also be scaled down from the traditional two days to one: Thursday, Aug. 6.

The purpose of the meeting, which is usually held in Washington, D.C., is for academics from universities and think tanks to describe their latest research to colleagues, policy experts, financial professionals, and the press. Topics this year will include taxes in retirement, federal disability insurance, housing, health, and labor markets. The U.S. Social Security Administration has funded the research and is sponsoring the meeting.

The agenda and information about registration are available online, and participants can register anytime. Questions for the researchers can be submitted during the presentations via a moderator.

One fresh idea being explored this year is taxes in retirement. Taxes are central to whether retirees have enough money to cover their essential expenses, but households that are approaching retirement age may not factor the need to pay federal and state taxes into their planning. Despite the importance of this issue, only a handful of existing studies have tried to estimate the tax burden. This paper fills the gap.

One session will feature a pair of papers looking at whether cognitive decline has a detrimental effect on older Americans’ finances. One will explore whether dementia leads to financial problems overall, and the other will focus exclusively on debt.

Researchers will also try to resolve a conundrum in the disability field: why are applications for federal benefits declining at the same time that Americans’ health is deteriorating? One hypothesis is that jobs are becoming less physically demanding. A second disability study will produce a publicly available database for researchers who want to examine the local factors affecting applications.

The agenda lists all of the papers that will be presented. Learn More