September 22, 2020
Isolation May Worsen Impact of Disability
A danger for working-age people with disabilities is that they become socially isolated, which can cause a further deterioration in their health and ability to function.
A good example of this vicious cycle is people with severe arthritis. If joint pain makes walking more difficult, it can limit one’s ability to do things with friends or be out in public, which means more social isolation and less exercise to ease the pain’s disabling effects.
A new Mathematica study connects this phenomenon to the sharp rise in the share of Social Security disability awards going to people with arthritis, back pain, and other musculoskeletal conditions.
Between 1997 and 2017, there was a slight increase, to 13.4 percent, in the share of Americans with musculoskeletal conditions who reported being socially isolated, according to the study, which was conducted for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.
Discomfort in social settings is also present in the general population – but at about half the rate, or 6 percent of adults.
Another contributor to social isolation is cognitive impairment, which includes confusion and poor memory. Cognitive impairments are also on the rise among people with arthritis and related conditions. The increase can’t solely be attributed to the aging of the U.S. population either, because the analysis controlled for age in order to eliminate its effects.
To understand the role of social isolation in disability, the researchers point to the vicious cycle between the two.
“Whether social isolation is exacerbating disability or disability is exacerbating social isolation,” they said, “the contributing limitations are risk factors” that will worsen a disability that already exists. …Learn More
September 17, 2020
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:
Same Disability: Some Have Tougher Jobs
Same Arthritis but Some Feel More Pain
Disabilities and the Toll of Irregular Hours
Economy: …Learn More
September 1, 2020
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
August 27, 2020
Housing Subsidies May Fuel SSI Growth
Federal spending on the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program has grown substantially in recent decades, making it the single largest source of cash assistance for older or disabled Americans with little or no income.
For people with disabilities to qualify for SSI’s benefits – the federal maximum is currently $783 per month, with most states adding in smaller amounts – the disability must severely restrict their ability to work. The average monthly payments under Social Security’s separate disability insurance (DI) program are larger, but people who lack the necessary work history required to apply for DI can seek disability status through SSI.
To better understand SSI’s rapid growth, researchers asked whether the preference for housing assistance that some cities give to people with disabilities might create an incentive – albeit an indirect one – to seek approval for SSI. The possibility of moving higher on a city’s long waiting list for housing is highly prized, because the demand for low-cost housing vastly exceeds the supply.
The housing assistance comes in two forms: apartments in public housing developments or federal rental vouchers that pay landlords the difference between their market-rate rents and what the low-income household can afford. Both types of assistance cap rental payments at 30 percent of the household’s income.
First, the researchers found that people with disabilities are, indeed, more likely to get the scarce housing assistance, and their advantage has increased over the past 20 years. Single mothers and people with no more than a high school education in particular benefit from these housing preferences.
The researchers also confirmed their hunch that the prospect of obtaining low-cost housing is a factor in the growth in SSI’s enrollment. And the more expensive the rents in an area, the stronger the incentive to seek SSI: a $1,000 increase in the value of the assistance increases enrollment in SSI by almost a third, according to the study. …Learn More
August 20, 2020
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
August 11, 2020
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
August 6, 2020
Public-Sector Disability is Fairly Generous
About one in four state and local government employees – some 6.5 million people – do not participate in the Social Security system. They get their disability insurance, as well as their pensions, from their employers.
Whether the coverage is more or less generous than Social Security disability depends on the individual worker’s circumstance and how the state or local employer calculates benefits. But a new study concludes that public-sector workers who have a disability generally receive benefits that are at least as generous as the federal benefits.
To compare them, researchers at the Center for Retirement Research had to construct a database with each state’s and locality’s eligibility requirements and benefit payments. The sample consisted of 67 different disability programs, which cover a majority of the U.S. workers who don’t pay into Social Security.
The main thing Social Security and the public-sector have in common is eligibility – a 35-year-old must have five years of employment to receive federal disability and four to six years under most public-sector programs. One way they differ is that most state and local governments have a more liberal definition of what qualifies as a disability. Social Security pays benefits to a worker who can no longer do any job. Public-sector benefits go to a worker who can’t continue doing his current job.
The disability benefits are also calculated differently. Social Security’s progressive formula is the most generous to low-wage workers, because it replaces a higher percentage of their past earnings. But each state and local government uses the same formula for all of its workers, regardless of their earnings, and the formula gives more credit to employees who have been with their employer the longest.
What does all this add up to? The older public-sector workers, who are most at risk of developing a disability, receive relatively generous protection under the state and local programs, because the eligibility requirements are less strict than Social Security’s and because the benefits for most long-tenured employees replace a higher percentage of their earnings.
Older people who moved into the public sector late in their careers are in a different situation. …Learn More