Regional Variations in Disability Insurance

In 1960 the percentage of Americans receiving disability Social Security disability payments amounted to 0.65 of the 18-to-64-year-old population. In the intervening half century, work has become more automated and less strenuous. The quality of healthcare has improved. Yet the percentage of the working-age population on disability had grown to 5.6% — nearly nine times.

Clearly, something is at work in American society to lower the standards of what constitutes “disability.” One factor at work: Nearly half of all Americans on disability profess to suffer from “mood disorders” or “musculoskeletal” problems. For all practical purposes, it is impossible to disprove that someone experiences depression or a bad back.

Having read that disability benefits are easier to qualify for in some parts of the country than others — West Virginia is notorious for having sympathetic administrative law judges — I thought I’d see whether the prevalence of citizens on disability varies significantly by state. Turns out that it does.  Here is the breakdown for December 2011.

The disability rate for Virginia is slightly below the national average, which says something, but I’m not sure what. In examining the regional variation of disability rates, the most remarkable thing I have found is that states south of the Mason-Dixon Line have the highest rates — West Virginia has the highest rates by far — while states in the West (including California) have the lowest.

Is this a cultural phenomenon? Do those welfare-hating Southerners have a soft spot for people with disabilities? Or does the variation reflect something else, such as differences in worker compensation laws? If it’s tough to get workers comp, perhaps people are more inclined to seek disability benefits. If anyone has any thoughts, please voice them in the comments.


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17 responses to “Regional Variations in Disability Insurance”

  1. re: mood disorders


    this program needs to be seriously reformed …

    as a nation, our jobs are less dangerous but a ton of us now suffer from heart disease and diabetes.

  2. People working with their hands and bodies get dinged up over the years. At some point many have pain, but if they have a job, they’ll continue to work. When they lose a job, it becomes difficult to find another job because employers ask about back and other medical issues, some require a physical, and some do special testing for back problems on their own. A company can decide not to hire someone on the basis that the individual may not be able to do the job, but it’s more difficult (and expensive) to fire him or her once hired because of ADA, workers comp, unemployment, so a person with a back problem or other health issues won’t get hired. What choice does the individual have then? Maybe they can work, but who will hire them? Plus there are fewer manual labor jobs that an older person can do than there were years ago.

    It’s a combination of more sophisticated employers who have learned to avoid dinged up individuals, plus the lack of decent jobs available for industrial and manual laborers – we’re in a transition period when manufacturing jobs are going overseas, but the workers are not, and the government is the worker’s last resort.

    Re the statistics, it would be interesting to see what percentage of workers who apply for SS Disability actually get it.

    1. Any ideas on why the rate of disability varies so widely from state to state — and is so prevalent in the South? The factors you mention above would seem to be generic — they apply across the board. Something’s going on here that I don’t understand.

      1. I know from anecdotal evidence many individuals in WV of the white trash variety abuse these programs. I have met people that were signed up to receive benefits such as social security and disability during their teen years (which were sometimes siphoned back by the parent) through identity theft or other fraudulent means. In this case it was simply a matter of the authorities not digging very deep into who these people were or whether their claims were legitimate. So it is possible these claims are simply being over-reported in these areas.

        It is also possible that the nature of work down in the South varies from other places, leaning towards manual labor. Specifically, the coal mining of WV takes more of a toll on the body. Certainly more so than gallivanting around Charlottesville and Richmond. 😛

      2. I don’t have the statistics or research to back it up, but I suspect it relates to the industries in the particular state – textiles have been hit hard in the South, coal in WVa – those are both hard industries on the body and they’ve lost jobs in areas where there are few jobs. Also you’ll note that the Northern states and California are more likely to be union, which presumably have safer work environments and better disability plans for workers in the old industries there.

        1. we have the national stats by disability category but I suspect the state stats would help reveal more.

          I would presume that the program is run with one set of standards by the Feds but I could be wrong as MedicAid is an example of a Federal program where the states can and do have great influence over who can get benefits.

        2. Here’s something I did not know .. I think Richard alluded to it:

          ” Regardless of a person’s age, after receiving SSDI benefits for 24 months, they are eligible for Medicare, including Part A (hospital benefits), Part B (medical benefits), and Part D (drug benefits). The date of Medicare eligibility is measured from the date of eligibility for SSDI (generally 6 months after the start of disability), not the date when the first SSDI payment was received.”

          1. this is an interesting read:


            within the doc, do a search for “Medicare” and you’ll see
            why the SSI program is getting hammered.

            People have found a back-door way to get health care when they lose their jobs.

            All the employer has to do is to AGREE to say that a discharged employee was becoming “disabled”.

        3. DJRippert Avatar


          You actually have two theories. First, you suspect that states with a high percentage of physical jobs create more disability cases. Then, you suspect that states where manually-intensive industries have faded create more disability cases. One seems legitimate, the other seems fraudulent.

          I note Utah and Alaska as the two states with the lowest percentage of disability cases. I can’t think of a state where more physical work is required than Alaska. You move to Alaska because you want to be outside, work outside, etc.

          I’d suggest six important areas of investigation:

          1. Changes in the definition of disability to include mental anguish and musculo-skeletal problems.

          2. A demographic “bulge” of workers in the Baby Boom generation – old enough to suffer the infirmities of age but too young for regular Social Security and regular Medicare. I think this could explain some of the state – by – state variance as well.

          3. A poor economy which has far too few jobs for those with disabilities who would rather work. A person too disabled to work on a construction site might be able to work in a store if the jobs in stores were available.

          4. Endless advertising by lawyers regarding their ability to get you social security disability benefits.

          5. Obesity. Years of being overweight take their toll on ankles, knees and hips making some people incapable of jobs like being a waitress.

          6. Regional variances in application of laws, rules and processes.

          In any regard, increasing the prevalence of disability payments by 9X from 1960 to now is another factor pressuring the US economy. And finally, having almost 1 out of 10 West Virginia adults on social security disability is absurd.

          Finally, I have to quibble with Jim Bacon’s quote, “Do those welfare-hating Southerners have a soft spot for people with disabilities?”.

          If welfare is used in broad terms the South consumes an immense amount of welfare. The Republican Party better hope to hell that the rural and small town people who vote for the Romneys of the world don’t figure out just how much uber-liberal income redistribution goes into their pockets. If they ever do figure it out there will be no red states.

          1. I should have put “welfare hating” in quotes. As you correctly observe, the poor-but-red states of the South are disproportionate beneficiaries of welfare state largesse.

          2. A lot of people in Alaska or at least working in Alaska are not native Alaskans. Thus when they get hurt, if it is serious, these workers may be likely to leave Alaska and return to a slightly warmer locale to heal.

          3. DJRippert – There is great deal of controversy over whether back and other unspecific pain is truly disabling. It is sometimes a matter of degree. I’m sure that there is fraud, but it’s not all fraudulent. My point was that when a physical or mental ailment makes it so someone can’t get a job, they may not be disabled in the sense that they can’t work, but nonetheless the ailment has resulted in there not being able to work in a decent job. I wouldn’t say that a person in that situation who requests disability coverage is committing fraud. I suppose there is always work of some kind that can be done, but I would put that approach on the same level as a taxpayer who takes an aggressive stance on his/her tax return – the worker is simply taking an aggressive stance on disability. Otherwise I agree with your 6 areas of investigation.

  3. I think Richard has well explained some of it. the variation per state is not so easy to understand unless the states have some involvement in determination of disability.

  4. speaking of Ronald Reagan though – the “myth” of what he did verses
    the reality continues to run amok:,945985

  5. SS Guy: Do you currently have a job?
    Then you aren’t disabled no matter what you claim.

    SS Guy: Do you currently have a job?
    How about a lawyer?
    SS Guy: OK, let’s talk.

    Up to 80 percent of disability claims are denied.
    Think about that for a minute.

    1. DJRippert Avatar


      I believe you have to be denied twice before you can go before the Social Security Benefits Board for a hearing.

      File a claim, get denied.

      File a claim, get denied.

      Hire a lawyer.

  6. that’s right and what is driving at least some of it is that once you are approved – no matter your age – if you maintain that status for 2 years – you are eligible for Medicare.

    check the reference I provided upthread.

    people are losing their jobs and having trouble getting re-hired
    and finding a back-door path to health care.

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