In 2010, Social Security’s disability program cost $124 billion plus another $59 billion for Medicare (after two years, disability recipients automatically qualify for Medicare). This exceeded $1,500 for every U.S. household. For the past two decades, disability spending has increased at a 5.6 percent annual rate, compared with 2.2 percent for the rest of Social Security. As a result, disability represents nearly one in five dollars of Social Security spending, up from one in 10 in 1988.
All these facts come from a fascinating paper by economist David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The disability program, Autor writes, is a “central component of the U.S. social safety net” but doesn’t help “workers with less severe disabilities” to stay in the labor force (By law, recipients can’t be employed because disability is defined as the inability to work.) This means Social Security collides with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which aimed to keep the disabled in jobs.