Are Disability Beneficiaries Unhealthier than Ever?

Matthew Rutledge, April Yanyuan Wu, Qi Guan, Brad Trenkamp

NBER Disability Research Center Paper No. NB 14-01
Issued in September 2014

The proportion of the population receiving benefits from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is at a record-high. Most existing research focuses on economic motivations for applying for benefits, but less is known about whether more SSDI and SSI applicants are receiving benefits because they are less healthy. This paper uses a unique dataset that combines administrative SSDI and SSI records from the Social Security Administration with health measures and personal characteristics from the Survey of Income and Program Participation to examine whether SSDI and SSI applicants are more likely to report negative health outcomes one year or more before application, and whether their health differs by age or the application’s ultimate success. The descriptive analysis finds clear upward trends in poor self-reported health, work limitations, and limitations in the Activities of Daily Living for all ages and for both allowed and denied applicants. But the regression-adjusted trend lines are flat, suggesting that shifts in the composition of applicants – notably, the increase in college-educated applicants, who are likely to apply only when health problems are severe – are responsible for the observed upward trend in negative health measures.

PDF (359 K)Executive Summary (60 K)