Between 2000 and 2012, the number of people in Penobscot County receiving Social Security disability benefits skyrocketed, rising from 4,475 to 7,955 — or nearly one in 12 of the county’s adults between the ages of 18 and 64, according to Social Security statistics.
The fast expansion of disability here is part of a national trend that has seen the number of former workers receiving benefits soar from just over 5 million to 8.8 million between 2000 and 2012. An additional 2.1 million dependent children and spouses also receive benefits.
The crush of new recipients is putting unsustainable financial pressure on the program. Federal officials project that the program will exhaust its trust fund by 2016 — 20 years before the trust fund that supports Social Security’s old-age benefits is projected to run dry.
The growth of the disability rolls has accelerated since the recession hit in 2007. As the labor market tightened, workers with disabilities that employers previously accommodated on the job — painful hips, mental disorders, weak hearts — were often the first to go. Finding new work often proved difficult, causing many to turn to the disability rolls for support.
The migration of so many people from work to the disability rolls is raising concern among lawmakers in Congress that the program is being stretched beyond its original intent of providing a safety net for former workers whose medical problems make them unable to work.
Last week, the Government Accountability Office found that the program made $1.3 billion in potentially improper payments to people who had jobs when they were supposedly disabled. The allegedly improper payments represent less than 1 percent of disability payments.
While fraud remains a concern, policymakers say the program’s biggest vulnerability is the subjective criteria that create a large gray area for applicants. A worker with physical impairments that are difficult to document precisely, like a bad back, can tolerate the condition while on the job but claim it as a reason to go on disability if he falls out of work for a prolonged period.
Many recipients first go on unemployment, which can last a few months or even more than year. Disability, by contrast, can pay out benefits for decades. The vast majority of recipients never return to work.
“The disability program is increasingly becoming a long-term unemployment program,” said Richard Burkhauser, a Cornell University professor who co-wrote a book on disability policy and has testified before Congress about the program. “We see a lot of it now because of the effects of the recession.”