The Right Is Furious at How Much Disability the Right Is Claiming

Conservative columnists are newly outraged by Social Security data showing a rise in disability applications. But this isn't Obama's fault. In fact, it's kind of theirs.

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Conservative columnists are newly outraged by Social Security data showing a rise in disability applications. But this isn't Obama's fault. In fact, it's kind of theirs.

Here's the key data, as articulated by conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg.

In 1960, when vastly more Americans were involved in physical labor of some kind, 0.65% of workforce participants between the ages of 18 and 64 were receiving Social Security disability insurance payments. Fifty years later, in a much healthier America that number has grown to 5.6%.

And the spittle-flecked argument at

[E]very guy who signs his “disability” application with an “x” is yet another cross the productive people have to bear. It’s one more headache. It’s one more straw on the back of the camel. It gets easier every morning to cross over. I could take the blue pill and fill out the paperwork.

I could sign it with an “x” and tell Doctor Feelgood that “Muh teacher didn’t larn me no goode.” The pencil would whip. My legs would go up on the couch, the check would roll in. You could carry me. It would be just that easy. Until nobody bothers at all…

The author of that piece, Repair_Man_Jack, links to data from the Social Security Administration that includes this graph.

"Jack" got that from this blog, which says of the data: "I'm surprised that the government posted these on their .gov site."

After all, look at that spike in applications! Why so many disability applications?

Before we answer that question, let's look a little closer at the data. What's economically important, for those who worry unduly about such things, is how many disability claims Social Security is awarding. That graph is the bottom line above, but we've broken it out below.

Still an increase over time, but consistently. But notice that the government is actually awarding far fewer applicants. Applications are way up, awards are consistent. Here's the percentage of applications that resulted in awards over time.

Leading to this chart from the Social Security Administration, showing the number of people receiving payment at the end of each month. Over the past thirty years, those receiving benefits have increased — very, very consistently.

So let's get back to the question of those applications. Why so many more?

Go back to that first graph. Notice when the big application spike happened — 2009 or 2010. Now, subtract 65 from that number. 2010 minus 65 years equals 1945. The year the Second World War ended. And the year that the baby boom began in earnest.

America's population has gotten steadily older. Here's the population distribution from the censuses of 1990, 2000, and 2010. That bump that's moving slowly to the right is the baby boom. (It's getting smaller as more Boomers die off.)

Data from Census Scope and the U.S. Census.

And as the National Institutes of Health and the CDC would remind us, older people are more likely to suffer from disabilities. Going back to Goldberg:

Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute and the Harvard School of Public Health notes in his recent book "A Nation of Takers: America's Entitlement Epidemic" that 29% of the 8.6 million Americans who received Social Security disability benefits at the end of 2011 cited injuries involving the "musculoskeletal system and the connective tissue."

That's called arthritis.

The greatest irony here is that those older arthritics fall into another group besides "most likely to file for disability". That group is "the Republican party". Here's how people in different age groups voted in 2012.

Using data from Pew Research's historical voter registration polling, we put together this rough estimate of the age composition of the Republican Party. It is quite literally not getting any younger.

In fact, this is the party's main challenge right now: It's weighted heavily toward older, whiter voters. And while those older voters may enjoy taking umbrage with the freeloaders exploiting the "productive" people, the critique hits much closer to home than they seem to realize. Lots of stones being thrown in increasingly creaky glass houses.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.