In November 1982, unemployment hit its postwar high of 10.8 percent, far higher than the current rate of 7.7 percent. But the total share of workers who are either unemployed or receiving disability payments from the government totals 12.6 percent today.
The steady rise in disability claims presents something of a puzzle. Medicine has improved substantially. Far fewer of us labor in dangerous industrial jobs like the ones that originally motivated disability insurance. The rate of deaths due to injuries has plummeted. Behavior that can cause disability, such as alcohol use and smoking, has declined substantially. American age-adjusted mortality rates are far lower than in the past.
The aging of the baby-boom generation is often cited as one explanation for the rise in disability insurance rolls. Yet the economists Mark Duggan and Scott Imberman estimate that “this factor can explain just 15.5 percent of the growth in the likelihood that a nonelderly adult male receives DI benefits.”
The two primary alternative hypotheses for the rise are that either work has become less attractive or that disability insurance has become more attractive and available.
Work has become “less attractive?” More like “less available.”