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Who Applies for Disability – and Who Gets it

Blue-collar workers who end up applying for federal disability benefits find themselves in that position for a variety of interrelated reasons.

A dangerous or physically demanding job can either cause an injury or exacerbate a medical condition that could lead to a disability. And people with limited resources in childhood often develop health problems earlier in life, and their circumstances can limit their access to job opportunities, making them more likely to end up in dangerous or physically demanding jobs.

A new NBER study untangles all these factors to clarify who applies for disability and which applicants ultimately receive benefits through Social Security’s rigorous approval process.

Researchers at Stanford and the University of Wisconsin linked a survey of Americans 50 and older to occupational data describing the level of environmental and physical hazards they’ve faced during decades of working. Next, socioeconomic measures of their upbringing – the adults’ descriptions of their childhood health, education, and parents’ financial resources – were layered into the analysis. Finally, the researchers repeated the process, replacing childhood health with genetic data on their predispositions to various disabling illnesses.

Blue-collar and service workers are known to apply for federal disability benefits at higher rates than white-collar workers. But the researchers showed that low socioeconomic status in childhood – by limiting the options for less strenuous jobs – played an even bigger role than workplace demands in whether the workers applied for the benefits.

However, when it comes to who is approved for benefits, physical and mental job requirements were key – and socioeconomic status plays no role. This makes sense because the heart of Social Security’s approval process is a determination that a disabled person is unable to do his previous job or another job appropriate to his age and experience.

An applicants’ health is, by definition, always central to whether he qualifies for disability. The final step in the researchers’ analysis used genetic data to get a picture of the applicants’ underlying health – as distinct from the health problems originating from a disadvantaged childhood. …Learn More