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Should economic growth drive changes in the Social Security disability insurance rolls? It appears to have done just that over the past ten years, suggesting that the program embodies a degree of sham. The Political Calculations blog has some fascinating charts and discussion of this phenomenon entitled “The Disability Dumping Ground“. It shows that the number of workers receiving disability benefits rose across many age cohorts, and especially more “mature” cohorts, as the economy entered the Great Recession. Successful claims continued to rise throughout the weak economic recovery, but the increases began to taper as economic activity finally neared and exceeded pre-recession levels. However, the post notes that:

the vast majority of those who were added to Social Security’s disability rolls during the period from 2008 through 2013 are still on them.

One must question whether the Obama Administration had a motive to encourage more latitude in the approval of disability claims during this period:

And because being classified as disabled would remove such individuals from being counted as both unemployed and part of the U.S. civilian labor force, the Obama administration had a strong incentive to get the program’s administrators to look the other way at the disability insurance applications for benefits that were being made as jobless benefits were expiring, as the resulting math would considerably reduce the official unemployment rates reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Of course, an intentional effort to bring more of the long-term unemployed onto the disability rolls might be defended as counter-cyclical fiscal policy and on immediate humanitarian grounds. However, the accelerated depletion of the Disability Insurance Trust Fund implies “that the payments to individuals receiving … benefits will be reduced by nearly one-fifth.” Such cuts would be extremely unjust to those suffering from more legitimate disabilities. In any case, this makes the pretext under which payroll taxes are collected highly suspect.

It would be interesting to know whether changes in the disability rolls or benefit payments bore a correlation to economic growth over a longer history. The social gains from pooling risks at this level are easily frittered by mismanagement and fraudulent activity, faults to which government activity is particularly prone.